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    Default Dialectics

    Am I right in thinking that Dialectics is the concept of a debate between two people?!?

    Why are a lot of forum members anti-dialectic?

    (Excuse my ignorance!)

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    Dialectics are a method of describing the motions of the universe so that as few people as possible have any idea what the hell you're talking about.
    It has nothing to do with 'debate between two people', surely.
    Or would debate count as the unity of opposites, thus leading to a contradiction?

    Also, any thread about dialectics on Revleft is a ticking bomb.

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    This was part of the original meaning, but the German philosopher Hegel transformed it into a cosmic system that ran the entire universe (since he thought that everything was mind, so it made sense to him that the universe sort of argued with itself, so to speak).

    Early Marxists took these ideas over, extracted what they called their 'rational core', welded it to materialism, and this became 'Dialectical Materialism'.

    It's hard to say what proportion of RevLeft members are anti-dialecticians, but my guess is that practically all of the anarchists are, and some of the Marxists are, including me.

    You can find a simple explanation of this theory, along with my refutation of it, here:

    http://homepage.ntlworld.com/rosa.l/...mmies%2001.htm

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    Rosa is it not possible for you to ever condense that down so you can explain it in a short paragraph?


    Ivan "Bonebreaker" Khutorskoy
    16.11.2009
    "We won't forget, we won't forgive"

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    HLVS, that is a tall order! I am not sure that this is possible without serious distortion to dialectics and to my criticism of it.

    Here is a 2000 word article I wrote for the Weekly Worker last year (hope this is short enough!):

    Has history refuted dialectics?

    Rosa Lichtenstein explains why she rejects dialectical materialism - the ‘mystical theory Engels smuggled into Marxism’

    In the space available I can only outline a few of my reasons for rejecting dialectical materialism. However, nothing here should be read as an attack on historical materialism, a theory I fully accept.

    I will begin by looking at a handful of my criticisms of Engels’s three laws.

    Quantity and quality

    Engels asserted the following:

    “[Q]ualitative changes can only occur by the quantitative addition or subtraction of matter or motion (so-called energy) ... Hence it is impossible to alter the quality of a body without addition or subtraction of matter or motion: ie, without quantitative alteration of the body concerned.”1
    Such changes, according to Plekhanov, are neither smooth nor gradual:

    “[Q]uantitative changes, accumulating gradually, lead in the end to changes of quality, and that these changes of quality represent leaps, interruptions in gradualness … That is how all nature acts …”2
    And yet there are many things in nature that undergo smooth qualitative change - for example, melting metal, glass, plastic, butter, toffee and chocolate. Sure, some things change ‘nodally’, but many do not. So, the ‘nodal’ aspect of this law is defective.

    Unfortunately, this implies that it cannot be used to argue that the transformation from capitalism to socialism must be nodal too, for we have no idea whether this transformation is one of these exceptions. Plainly, we could only use this law if it had no exceptions whatsoever. This means that the whole point of adopting this law in the first place has now vanished.

    What about ‘quantity into quality’? Undeniably, many material things change qualitatively as a result of the addition or subtraction of matter or energy. But this is not true of all qualitative difference. The order in which events take place can affect quality, too. For example, try crossing a busy main road first and looking second - now, try it the other way round! And anyone who tries pouring half a litre of water slowly into a litre of concentrated sulphuric acid will face a long and painful stay in hospital, whereas the reverse action is perfectly safe.

    Moreover, this law is so vaguely worded that dialecticians can use it in whatever way they please. If this is difficult to believe, ask the very next dialectician you meet precisely how long a ‘nodal point’ is supposed to last. As seems clear, if no-one knows, anything from a geological age to an instantaneous quantum leap could be ‘nodal’!

    And it really is not good enough for dialectically-inclined readers to dismiss this as mere pedantry. Can you imagine a genuine scientist refusing to say how long a crucially important interval in her theory is supposed to be, and accusing you of ‘pedantry’ for even asking?

    Next, enquire what a ‘quality’ is. You might be told it is a property the change of which alters a process/object into something new. Unfortunately, given this explanation of ‘quality’, many of the examples dialecticians themselves employ would cease to work.

    For instance, the most hackneyed example they use is that of water turning to ice or steam when cooled or heated. But, given the above, this would not be an example of qualitative change, since water as ice, liquid or steam is still water (ie, H2O). Quantitative addition or subtraction of energy does not result in a qualitative change of the required sort; nothing new emerges. This substance stays H2O throughout.

    Faced with that, dialecticians may be tempted to relax the definition of ‘quality’, so that in a solid, liquid or gaseous state, water could be said to exhibit different qualities. Unfortunately, this would rescue the above example but sink the theory. If we allow ‘quality’ to apply to any qualitative difference, then we would have to admit the relational properties of bodies. In that case we could easily witness qualitative change where no extra matter or energy has been added. For instance, consider three animals in a row: a mouse, a pony and an elephant. In relation to the mouse, the pony is big, but in relation to the elephant it is small. Change in quality, with no matter or energy added or subtracted.

    Of course, all this is quite apart from the fact that altering the way that ‘quality’ is understood indicates that changes in quality are now relative to an observer’s choice of descriptive framework. Plainly, this introduces a fundamental element of arbitrariness into what dialecticians claim to be a scientific law.

    Finally, there are substances called isomers - ie, molecules with exactly the same number of atoms differently arranged - where, if the geometrical orientation of these atoms is altered, the resulting qualities of the compounds involved change. Here, we would have a change in geometry causing a change in quality, with the addition of no new matter or energy, contradicting Engels, who writes: “Hence it is impossible to alter the quality of a body without addition or subtraction of matter or motion ...”3 (emphasis added).

    So, at the very best, this law is merely a quaint rule of thumb (rather like ‘A stitch in time saves nine’). At worst, it is like a stopped clock: totally useless, even if twice a day it tells the ‘right time’. Hence, Engels’s first law is of no use to revolutionary theory, and so has no role to play in helping to change society.

    Unity and interpenetration of opposites

    This is perhaps the most important of these laws, for it encapsulates the principle of change, as well as that of temporary stability.

    Unfortunately, dialecticians have so far been entirely unclear whether things change because of their internal opposites, whether they change into these opposites (or even into one another) or, indeed, whether they create these opposites as they change:

    Here are Lenin, Plekhanov and Mao:

    Firstly, Lenin:

    “Hegel brilliantly divined the dialectics of things ... as follows: in the alternation, reciprocal dependence of all notions, in the identity of their opposites, in the transitions of one notion into another, in the eternal change, movement of notions ....”
    Among the elements of dialectics are the following, according to Lenin:

    “[I]nternally contradictory tendencies … as the sum and unity of opposites …. [This involves] not only the unity of opposites, but the transitions of every determination, quality, feature, side, property into every other [into its opposite?] ...”.4
    Secondly, Plekhanov:

    “And so every phenomenon, by the action of those same forces which condition its existence, sooner or later, but inevitably, is transformed into its own opposite …”.5
    Finally, Mao:

    “In speaking of the identity of opposites in given conditions, what we are referring to is real and concrete opposites and the real and concrete transformations of opposites into one another ....

    “[A]ll processes transform themselves into their opposites. The constancy of all processes is relative, but the mutability manifested in the transformation of one process into another is absolute.”6
    But this leaves change a complete mystery. To see this, let us suppose that object/process A is comprised of two ‘internal opposites’, O* and O**, and thus changes as a result.

    But, O* cannot itself change into O** since O** already exists! If O** did not already exist, according to this theory, O* could not change, for there would be no opposite to bring that about.

    And it is no good propelling O** into the future so that it now becomes what O* will change into, since O* will do no such thing unless O** is already there in the present to make that happen!

    Hence, if object/process A is already composed of a dialectical union of O* and not-O* (ie, O**) and it ‘changes’ into not-O*, where is the change? All that seems to happen is that O* disappears. Thus, O* does not change into not-O*: it is just replaced by it.

    At the very least, this account of change leaves it entirely mysterious how not-O* itself came about. It seems to have popped into existence from nowhere.

    It cannot have come from O*, since O* can only change because of the operation of not-O*, which does not yet exist. And pushing the process into the past (via a ‘reversed’ version of the negation of the negation) will merely reduplicate the above problems.

    Of course, this is all quite apart from the fact that many things just do not change into their opposites (or even because of them). When was the last time you saw a male cat turn into a female cat? Your left hand into your right? An electron into a proton? Or even a material object into an immaterial one?

    And are we really supposed to believe that every proletarian (as individuals or as a class) will turn into capitalists (and/or vice versa)?

    According to the above dialecticians, this must happen.

    None of this implies that things cannot change, but it does mean that dialectics cannot explain why they do so.

    Negation of the negation

    This law is just an extension to the previous law, and so suffers from all the latter’s weaknesses.

    Engels retailed a rather unfortunate example, however:

    “Butterflies ... spring from the egg by a negation of the egg, pass through certain transformations until they reach sexual maturity, pair and are in turn negated, dying as soon as the pairing process has been completed and the female has laid its numerous eggs.”7
    In fact, butterflies and moths go through the following stages:

    Adult -> egg -> pupa -> chrysalis -> adult.

    Which is the negation of which here? And which is the negation of the negation?

    And what about organisms which reproduce by splitting, such as amoebae and bacteria? In any such split, which half is the negation and which the negation of the negation? Indeed, what about vegetative (asexual) reproduction in general, where there are no opposites (no gametes)?

    Consider, too, the thoroughly reactionary life-form myxomycota (slime mould), which belongs neither to the plant nor the animal kingdom, but to the protoctista. Its life-cycle involves the following: a giant amoebal stage, followed by a slug-like existence, which morphs into a fungal-like fruiting body, which then releases spores. Again, which is the negation, and which is the negation of the negation?

    And with respect to the former USSR (post 1917): if this law is progressive, why did it allow the revolution to decay and go into reverse?

    Is modern-day Russia really then the un-negation of the negation of the negation of tsarist Russia?

    Practice

    Dialecticians tell us that truth is tested in practice. In that case, what does history reveal?

    Unfortunately, it shows that dialectical Marxism has not known much in the way of success. The 1917 revolution has been reversed, practically every single socialist state has abandoned Marxism, all four Internationals have gone down the pan and few revolutionary parties these days can boast active membership levels that rise much above the risible. To cap it all, billions of workers worldwide not only ignore dialectics, they have never even heard of it.

    And yet most dialecticians claim that dialectics lies at the heart of revolutionary theory and practice. If so, why have none of them drawn the obvious conclusion that history has refuted dialectics?

    Nevertheless, it is my contention that this theory is part of the reason why dialectical Marxism is now almost synonymous with failure. This is because such long-term lack of success suggests that dialectical materialism might not be quite as sound as its supporters would have us believe.

    No surprise, therefore: that is exactly what we have found

    For more details of Rosa Lichtenstein’s views see http://homepage.ntlworld.com/rosa.l

    --------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    Notes

    1. F Engels Dialectics of nature Moscow 1954, p63.

    2. G Plekhanov The development of the monist view of history Moscow 1956, p163.

    3. F Engels Dialectics of nature Moscow 1954, p63.

    4. VI Lenin, ‘Philosophical notebooks’ CW Vol 38, Moscow 1961, pp196-97, 221-22.

    5. G Plekhanov Moscow 1956, p77.

    6. Mao Zedong, ‘On contradiction’ Selected works Vol 1, Peking 1964, pp340-42.

    7. F Engels Anti-Dühring Peking 1976, p173.
    http://www.cpgb.org.uk/worker/688/dialetics.htm

    It was criticised by Jack Conrad, leading CPGB theorist, here:

    http://www.cpgb.org.uk/worker/711/marxistthinking.html

    To which I replied here:

    http://homepage.ntlworld.com/rosa.l/...f_Darkness.htm

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    There are some people who are anti-dialectics on this site. There are a few reasons for this. Many of them are just not Marxists and adhere to more conventional sets of ideas, notably anarchism. Some would claim to be marxists.

    The underlying difficult for those people is firstly that dialectics is inherently vague and this makes people ask what use is it and what importance does it have. Secondly dialectics has been used for purposes of intellectual bullying often linked to undesirable political causes - most notably Stalinism but also others such as the Healeyits WRP in the UK in the past, within which reference to dialectics was widely used to suppress debate. Thirdly within the broad tradition loosely called Marxism there have been some significant thinkers, notably Lukacs, Adorno and Sartre who have been influenced to various degrees by Hegel in ways which are different from Hegel's influence on Marx.

    So its a complex picture. Rosa's article sets out her position succinctly. That position traces the issue of dialectics back to Engels. Others would say, on the contrary, that Engels did no more than defend a position he shared with Marx - and one Marx had asked him to defend. There is an answer to that argument and an answer in turn to that answer and on it goes.

    Underlying this is a question about what Marxism itself is....or rather what it needs to be to play its role as the self-consciousness of a revolutionary movement. For some people, it is possible for us to think clearly. If we put aside ideology and spurious or false bourgeois ideological notions, we can think clearly and such clear thinking can lead us to Marxism - i.e. to a particular understanding of history and the economy.

    For an alternative view, Marxism can only exist as a critique of the dominant ideas. For this view, socialists cannot expect to produce independent social or political economic science, but can only expect to pick out the particular flaws in the dominant view which reassure people that capitalism can go on for ever. To do that, so this argumment goes, Marxists need to think in ways that dont fit well into conventional science. They need to make use of provisional, schematic ideas about change.

    The nub of the issue is Marx's political economy. There are two alternative views of what Marx's poltical economy involves, one dialectical and the other conventional. But that aspect of the debate has received very limited attention on this site.
    "Dixi et salvavi animam meam" - quoted by Marx
    "Things rarely work out well if one aims at 'moderation'..." - Engels
    "By and by we heare newes of shipwrack in the same place, then we are too blame if we accept it not for a Rock." Sir Philip Sydney
    "The most to be hoped for by groups who claim to belong to the Marxist succession (...) is for them to serve as a hyphen between past and future....nothing can be held sacred – everything is called into question. Only after having been put through such a crucible could socialism conceivably re-emerge as a viable doctrine and plan of action." - Van Heijenoort

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    Gil:

    There are a few reasons for this. Many of them are just not Marxists and adhere to more conventional sets of ideas, notably anarchism. Some would claim to be marxists.
    Just as there are comrades here and elsewhere who have sold their radical souls for a mess of ruling-class pottage, served up by that bourgeois theorist, Hegel.

    Rosa's article sets out her position succinctly. That position traces the issue of dialectics back to Engels. Others would say, on the contrary, that Engels did no more than defend a position he shared with Marx - and one Marx had asked him to defend. There is an answer to that argument and an answer in turn to that answer and on it goes.
    The evidence for this is thin at best, and it gets even thinner after the publcation of Das Kapital.

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    You are right in thinking that dialectics was originally a concept relating to debate between two people. It has its origin in a three way distinction between logic, dialectics and rhetoric. The original idea, roughly, was to try to identify what is different between a logical argument on the one hand, a merely persuasive form of speaking at the other extreme and, in between, a form of argument which is persuasive in context.

    Medieval theology developed the concept, on the basis of the concept from Greek philosophy. The term was redefined by Kant who saw disputation as a process of seduction by appearances, in no way better than private reflection. For him such semblances involved pretending to apply formal rules of logic to reality. Thus he sought to replace the ars disputatoria with a reconceptualisation of dialectics as critique, in which it had a solely negative role of showing how something does not agree with the formal criteria of truth set out in logic. In his philosophy this creates the space for practical reasoning.

    Hegel rejected this dislocation between dialectical critique and practical reasoning. He did not believe the two could be divided up in that way. On the contrary, he believed that the way we come to a certain view of things is bound up unavoidably with the history of how those things have been viewed. In that sense we are always part of an historical discussion on the nature of reality.

    But he goes much further by arguing that this process of discovery through history, this debate between the ages, is the dialectic of history.

    Feuerbach has usefully suggested that we imagine Hegel as articulating the point of view of a pantheistic God. God is nature and unfolds its/his/her true nature through the historical process....the historical dialectic.

    Marx, of course rejected all this idealistic metaphysics and the debate then is around what if anything was left of the Hegelian idea of history as a process. In the course of developing his understanding of the dialectic Hegel had taken the concept far beyond the simple idea of a disputation. He had tried to show how all reality is involved in an unfolding process.

    To some it has seemed that once you deny (as Marx certainly does) that the process is one of an unfolding awareness (for Marx it is a process of the development of the forces of production) then the whole dialectical analogy falls flat and must be just abandoned. However, there are statements in Marx (and other Marxists) which suggest differently and which have been persuasive to many - for all that Rosa considers them thin at best and thinner after Capital.

    In a way the mystery (if I can call it that without any mystical implications) goes right back to the origins of the concept - in what sense is there anything to a conversation other than logic and rhetoric ? The point arises again in 18th Century philosophy - what is reason, other than logic and rhetoric....and arguably arises again in the 20th century in the discusssion of epistemology.

    But it undoubtedly has a very particular character in Marxism where there is much talk of turning Hegel back onto his feet....an analogy which promises much but remains opaque for many.
    "Dixi et salvavi animam meam" - quoted by Marx
    "Things rarely work out well if one aims at 'moderation'..." - Engels
    "By and by we heare newes of shipwrack in the same place, then we are too blame if we accept it not for a Rock." Sir Philip Sydney
    "The most to be hoped for by groups who claim to belong to the Marxist succession (...) is for them to serve as a hyphen between past and future....nothing can be held sacred – everything is called into question. Only after having been put through such a crucible could socialism conceivably re-emerge as a viable doctrine and plan of action." - Van Heijenoort

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    Thanks for that summary of certain aspects of ruling-class thought. The question is: what possible interest has any of this for socialists (other than antiquarian)?

    However, there are statements in Marx (and other Marxists) which suggest differently and which have been persuasive to many - for all that Rosa considers them thin at best and thinner after Capital.
    Well, you have yet to show otherwise.

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    i would really like a very easy to understand explanation of dialectics because so far i only got "everything keeps on changing"

    so please what is dialectics and how is it useful to me ?
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    piet, does the article I posted not help in any way?

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    Quote Originally Posted by Rosa Lichtenstein View Post
    piet, does the article I posted not help in any way?
    yes but i would like to hear from the dialecticians how its actually supposed to be useful.
    giving them a chance to argue their case you know.
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    Ah, I see.

    Good luck on that one...

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    wikipedia

    That is where I got my explannation from?! Hence the confusion about "debate"

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    what is dialectics and how is it useful to me ?
    The problem with answering that is that dialectics is of little or no use to you..........unless we know who 'you' are. There is a view (which I would share) that you cant grasp the materialist conception of history, as used by revolutionary socialists, or Marxist political economy without understanding some difficult methodological gymnastics which went into constructing those sets of ideas.

    In my opinion, for example, you will not understand why Marx started his analysis in Das Kapital from the analysis of the commodity rather than value or a concept of capital unless you understand the very particular methodology he used. Similarly you will not understand why the tendency of the rate of profit to fall is not and cannot be a statistical phenomenon unless you understand its role within the structure of capital. By the same token, in trying to understand the materialist conception of history you should very soon come across the constant reliance on a concept of the 'level of development of the forces of production' and should quickly realise that this concept is used without supporters of the materialist conception knowing what the level of development of the forces of production is to which it refers. Is this a problem ? For some it is. Within a dialectical methodolgy it is legitimate. Similarly, you wont go far in understanding the materialist conception of history without realising that the conception of class used there is a very unusual one which bears only a limited relationship to the sociological conception of class which we see commonly used around us.

    And it goes on. Rosa might (im guessing) want to suggest that all these issues can be resolved by clear thinking. Well, I'll believe that when Rosa actually sets out a clear and consistent communist theory of history and political economy which does not face such issues. She can if she wishes, try to show that it is also Marx's theory and that she is doing nothing more than paraphrasing what he has said, but that would be an add-on; its not required.

    As it is, for now, on the face of it there are some very strange methodological approaches taken by Marx which deserve to be wrestled with, instead of pretending there is no difficulty there. As you come to wrestle with those you will come to a conception of what Marx's method was and that is the dialectic.

    What is it not (and no classical Marxist has seriously suggested otherwise) is an a priori theory which saves you from engaging with the particular problems of different historical analyses or different political economic issues. As you come to your own view on these issues, you are engaging in an historical dialogue with a writer (Marx) who was deeply embedded in certain intellectual traditions. To engage with him, you must engage with the traditions he came from....critically, as he did. If you try to understand him without referring either to the science of political economy (Smith Ricardo etc) or the philosophy of identity from the critical appreciation of which he developed his views, you will find it difficult to understand his ideas. If you are not involved in that difficult task of engaging with the particular theoretical tradition of Communism then dialectics is of no use to you.

    you have yet to show otherwise.
    It is important that you are aware that no-one....and I think I am correct in saying 'no-one' who has ever written on this topic or looked carefully at Marx's relationship to Hegel shares Rosa's theory that there was some sort of radical change in Marx's view of Hegel just before the publication of capital. Others - notably Althusser - have argued that Marx's methodology needed little or nothing of a dialectical character. They tend to emphasise what Marxism needs to be while conceeding that Marx thought otherwise. Most people who have looked at the evidence would consider it incontrovertible that Marx had a high regard for Hegel and saw his own methodology as a critical appropriation of Hegel's. They merely say Marx was wrong about that and that his methodology was not, in any distinctive way, an appropriation of that of Hegel. If you accepted those views you could of course be interested in understanding Marx while rejecting dialectics. It is however notable that neither Althusser nor anyone else of this ilk has produced a positive representation of either the materialist conception of history or Marxist political economy which stands up to critical scrutiny.....unlike Marx. Funny that.
    Last edited by gilhyle; 14th December 2008 at 14:39.
    "Dixi et salvavi animam meam" - quoted by Marx
    "Things rarely work out well if one aims at 'moderation'..." - Engels
    "By and by we heare newes of shipwrack in the same place, then we are too blame if we accept it not for a Rock." Sir Philip Sydney
    "The most to be hoped for by groups who claim to belong to the Marxist succession (...) is for them to serve as a hyphen between past and future....nothing can be held sacred – everything is called into question. Only after having been put through such a crucible could socialism conceivably re-emerge as a viable doctrine and plan of action." - Van Heijenoort

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    i see a wall of words that are not telling me much of anything at all.

    where would i go for an understandable explanation of dialectics gilhyle ?
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    Don't bother asking Gil, piet; I have been doing that for well over two years. You will either get a load of Hegelian gobbledygook, or silence --, the latter, of course, being far more use, and much the clearer of the two.

    But, you will notice that using dialectics to help explain Das Kapital ends up doing the exact opposite of what Marx intended (a nice dialectical inversion, if ever there was one); it mystifies it again, and renders it immune from scientitic analysis and confirmation.

    Which is, naturally, the whole point...

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    Gil:

    It is important that you are aware that no-one....and I think I am correct in saying 'no-one' who has ever written on this topic or looked carefully at Marx's relationship to Hegel shares Rosa's theory that there was some sort of radical change in Marx's view of Hegel just before the publication of capital. Others - notably Althusser - have argued that Marx's methodology needed little or nothing of a dialectical character. They tend to emphasise what Marxism needs to be while conceeding that Marx thought otherwise. Most people who have looked at the evidence would consider it incontrovertible that Marx had a high regard for Hegel and saw his own methodology as a critical appropriation of Hegel's. They merely say Marx was wrong about that and that his methodology was not, in any distinctive way, an appropriation of that of Hegel. If you accepted those views you could of course be interested in understanding Marx while rejecting dialectics. It is however notable that neither Althusser nor anyone else of this ilk has produced a positive representation of either the materialist conception of history or Marxist political economy which stands up to critical scrutiny.....unlike Marx. Funny that.
    Indeed, and just like other mystics who look at the world and see 'incontrovertible evidence' for the 'hand of god' in creation.

    One small point: not one of you can cope with my objections to your mystical reading of Das Kapital.

    But, hey, who am I to come between you and your opiate?

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    Apologies to jump in here, but hopefully if will be useful to the original poster as well.

    If people were to recommend one book on dialectics (and don't give favour to online books, I much prefer paper), from the point of view of a dialectician, what would it be?
    A labour party is not a debating club, it is a party of action.

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    There is in fact a long list here (compiled by yours truly):

    http://www.revleft.com/vb/dialectica...813/index.html

    The best single book on this 'theory' for a newbie is probably:

    Cornforth, M. (1976), Materialism And The Dialectical Method (Lawrence & Wishart, 5th ed.).

    More advanced, and easily the best book defending this 'theory' is:

    Bukharin, N. (2005), Philosophical Arabesques (Monthly Review Press).

    Anti-dialectics books are few and far between (that is why I set my site up!).

    The best is by Eric Petersen (an Australian Marxist in the IS tradition), but it is not easy to get hold of:

    The Poverty of Dialectical Materialism (Red Door, 1994).

    http://www.greenleft.org.au/1996/221/14949

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