Karl Marx on Contradictions


“In the crises of the world market, the contradictions and antagonisms of bourgeois production are strikingly revealed. Instead of investigating the nature of the conflicting elements which erupt in the catastrophe, the apologists content themselves with denying the catastrophe itself and insisting, in the face of their regular and periodic recurrence, that if production were carried on according to the textbooks, crises would never occur.”

Karl Marx, Theories of Surplus Value, (1863)

One of the more ambiguous parts of Marx’s philosophy is his dialectical method. Despite a few helpful clues peppered in works ranging from the “Theses on Feuerbach” to the three volumes of Capital, Marx never got around to writing a major piece unpacking it. While working on Capital he wrote to Engels that “in the method of treatment the fact that by mere accident I glanced through Hegel’s Logic has been of great service to me…if there should ever be time for such work again, I would greatly like to make accessible to the ordinary human intelligence, in two or three printer’s sheets, what is rational in the method which Hegel discovered but at the same time enveloped in mysticism.” Such a pamphlet would have made many of our lives easier, and it is a shame that this wound up being one of the many books Marx floated writing, but never got around to. This makes it incumbent on us to fill in the blanks as best we can.

Among the most misunderstood aspects of Marx’s method is his language about the development and resolution of contradictions, which is at once provocative and infuriating. Conservative critics like Ayn Rand mocked it in books like Atlas Shrugged, implying that Marxists thought it was possible to supersede basic laws of Aristotelian logic like either A, or B, but not both A and B in order to have their cake and eat it. This reflects a deep misunderstanding of Marx’s thinking on contradictions, which is both rich and insightful.

As the aforementioned letter indicates, Marx drew much of his methodological approach from the earlier German philosopher Georg Hegel. Hegel began his career as a committed fan of the French Revolution, before ending it as a moderately conservative reformer employed by the Prussian state. After his death in 1831 Hegel’s followers split into conservative (right) and radical (Young) Hegelian factions. The former didn’t initially produce any philosophers of interest, although there are now a number of conservative and far-right authors like the late Roger Scruton and Paul Gottfried who find inspiration in Hegel’s work. By contrast, many Young Hegelians quickly became (in)famous: Feuerbach, Engels, and of course Marx.

Hegel characterized his philosophy as a kind of ‘absolute idealism’ or “mind coming to know itself in the shape of mind” as he put it in the Phenomenology of Spirit. One of his remarkable philosophical innovations was to develop his dialectical method, which was first put on display in the Phenomenology. An extremely strange book, it can be summarized as a kind of coming-of-age story as Hegel examines the different ‘shapes’ consciousness assumes over its history on the road to reason and freedom. In the classical ‘idealist’ reading of Hegel, this is expressed in terms of the contradictions that consciousness encounters in its interactions within the external world, which it experiences as various forms of alienation. Fortunately, consciousness eventually realizes these are not contradictions in the external world itself but in fact contradictions within itself. If it can overcome them it progresses to a higher stage, wherenew contradictions are again confronted and the stakes for the whole enterprise are raised.

This can seem rather opaque until one considers it in terms of more concrete examples. Consider Simone De Beauvoir’s discussion of alienated heterosexual relations in The Second Sex. Men and women both aspire to unalienated relations of mutual recognition and love between one another, which would provide meaning and affirmation to human life. But, within patriarchal societies, men, often crippled by anxiety, come to see women as an unreal ‘other’ who exists exclusively to satisfy their needs. At its worse, this can take the form of demanding recognition and love from women through abusive violence. But a contradiction emerges since, on the one hand, a man wants a woman to recognize him since she is a conscious being like he is, but, on the other, he refuses to acknowledge her own inner life as being comparable to his own. This of course means that she doesn’t appear as ‘real’ as he is. Thus, the abuser can never actually gain the affirmation so desperately sought from the woman. In everyday terms we express this as the self-defeating enterprise of demanding love and so only generating contempt, often leading to a vicious cycle.

In The Science of Logic, Hegel continues to apply his dialectical method to an analysis of logical categories. Contra authors like Rand, he does not deny that formal Aristotelian logic has its place. But Hegel seeks to move beyond Aristotle by showing that unless one goes further, logic becomes merely an empty and formalistic enterprise of accurately moving symbols around. To apply to the world logic needs to become more dynamic, accounting for how thought tries to apply formalistic categories to the real world only to realize they run into contradictions. Much like in The Phenomenology, Hegel’s logic, therefore, tries to resolve these contradictions on the path to a higher form of knowing.

Hegel repeats this dialectical approach in a truly magnificent number of settings, ranging from art to history and theology. But the classical takeaway from his writing was often that, once one scales the ladder, alienation ends since conscious human beings recognize the necessity of everything that exists in the world around them and become reconciled to it. Politically this can have conservative implications – we understand the world, see it as divinely ordained, and cease to be critical of it. And right Hegelians like Roger Scruton have never tired of insisting that a true understanding of his method should lead thoughtful people to accept the world as they find it and not seek to change unless that is ultimately to preserve it as is.

Marx argued that Hegel was right to analyze the world in terms of contradictions. But he was wrong to locate these exclusively in the experience and thought of human consciousness since that implies our goal is simply to achieve a better harmony within ourselves through rigorous thinking. Instead, Marx made the radical claim that, in fact, the contradictions which emerge in human thought aren’t there because we just haven’t thought through them yet. As a materialist rather than an idealist, Marx argues that we can perceive real contradictions in the social world we inhabit which cannot be simply thought past by philosophical speculation. Unfortunately, many people aren’t willing to accept that, meaning the contradictions of society are often obscured by various forms of fetishism which make social reality appear to us in a variety of ideologically determined ways.

Let’s consider our unhappy man in a toxic relationship again. Hedivides his time between continuously trying to be the best boyfriend he can and cheating or ignoring his girlfriend. Our Don Juan justifies this to himself and others through a variety of self-serving excuses, but there are no two ways about it: he is propelled to self-defeating behavior, or what Marx might call a real contradiction in his social relations. It may be that he can avoid the consequences for a while, or even benefit from them, but in the long run a major rupture is coming. The difference between this example and the social world is the man in the bad relationship has a much more direct understanding and control of what is going on, while in modern society even capitalists operate under external coercive laws of competition which limit their agency.

Marx applies similar kinds of reasoning to our social world, which he argues has passed through various different stages where human’s labored to create and maintain their social world in strikingly distinct ways before each was compelled to transform through the force of their internal contradictions. Accompanying this was a dizzying array of ideological forms. Present-day liberal capitalism initially promised emancipation from the irrationalism and mysticism of the medieval aristocratic era, finally allowing free and rational individuals to cooperate with one another in the market without illusions or domination. Marx agreed that liberal capitalism was the highest epoch yet achieved, but it was also characterized by real contradictions which were unconsciously and sometimes even deliberately obscured by ideology. Unlike Hegel who sometimes wrote as if the quasi-liberal Prussian state was the end of history, Marx argued these contradictions couldn’t be resolved through harmoniously recognizing the necessity of all that was in thought. They could only resolve themselves through further social transformations. In this case, this meant a transformation to a higher form of society, although what form this would take was never spelled out by him explicitly.

This has led to a longstanding and sometimes venomous debate amongst Marxists about where exactly we can see contradictions within capitalism, and which-if any-might prove lethal. Probably the best book on the subject is David Harvey’s Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism, which further breaks them down into foundational, moving, and dangerous contradictions. A good clean example of a contradiction is that existing between private property and the state, which becomes subject to endless ideologically driven fetishizations in capitalist societies. On the one hand, private property is often conceived of as something ‘natural’ or given, predating the state and even threatened by it. You can see expressions of this in the libertarian mantra that the state should be ‘small’ and respect property rights and the distribution of capital that emerges through ‘free’ market transactions. But, on the other hand, property is, of course, not a natural thing; as Harvey says it requires the “collective exercise of coercive regulatory state power to define, codify, and give legal form to those rights and the social bond that knits them so closely together.”

In fact, the more expansive a conception of property rights you want to uphold – including immaterial things such as brands, intellectual property, and images – the more expansive a state you will also need to establish and enforce those rights. Indeed, for many neoliberals writing at the end of the twentieth century, even a powerful state was no longer sufficient. An international regulatory system was required. Politically we can see deep expressions of this contradiction in the conservative opposition to neoliberal prophets of the world market as this new generation of right-wing populists are, on one hand, content with capitalism’s protection of property but, on the other, angry at its globalization and destruction of traditional social ties. But Marx would say there is no overcoming this contradiction permanently without either producing fresh (and possibly worse) ones, or ultimately transitioning to a different kind of society.