The Concrete and the Abstract: Beyond the Matter/Idea Dichotomy

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The following article is based on part of the manuscript for a forthcoming book on materialism – co-authored by Katarina Kolozova, Paul Cockshott, and Greg Michaelson.


After more than a century of Marxism and the centrality of the notion of dialectical materialism (or the dogma of Diamat),[1] it is quite a challenge to demonstrate that the compound notion of dialectics and materialism was not the cornerstone of Marxism in its original, i.e., Marx’s, form, and that he viewed dialectics and materialism as distinct categories not necessarily and unavoidably constituting a unity. His method of moving away from an abstraction, which is in fact a vague philosophical generalization, to arrive at the concrete only to extrapolate another and new form of abstraction (determined by the concrete), would not allow for a mixture and an amphibology of method and a claim about an ontological foundation of reality, i.e., of dialectics and method respectively. Much of what followed in this strange detour from, what we argue, was Marx’ original intention is probably indebted to the legacy of Diamat (dialectical materialism), as consolidated by the Comintern, and as the official party doctrine of USSR consolidated after the death of Lenin.

In Materialism and Empirio-criticism,[2] Lenin praises Joseph Dietzgen for coining the notion of “dialectical materialism,” thus having produced a proper materialism, one practiced by way of the method of dialectics, or as materialist dialectics, to be considered as an important addition to Marx’s and Engel’s original doctrine/s.[3] In this treatise penned by Lenin, we see one thing very clearly – Marx is not presented as the thinker who developed dialectical materialism but rather as the one that offered grounds for it to be developed by Dietzgen. However, Lenin’s use of the method of “dialectical materialism” is not centered on constituting an ontology of the classical, Stalinist Diamat type, but rather serves to refute subjectivism, as inherently idealist, and proffer a defense of Marxism as uncompromising materialism. The triad of thesis, antithesis and synthesis, and thus reconciliation of materialism and idealism is neither Lenin’s object of interest nor his objective in the title at issue:


A red thread that runs through all the writings of all the Machists is the stupid claim to have “risen above” materialism and idealism, to have transcended this “obsolete” antithesis; but in fact this whole fraternity is continually sliding into idealism and it conducts a steady and incessant struggle against materialism.[4]


Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio-criticism is a stark defense of materialism first and foremost, and hardly one – if at all – of that, then still novel, notion, never really accepted by Marx and his immediate circle, called “dialectical materialism.”


Evald Iliyenkov’s reading of both Marx and Lenin proves that the kernel of Marx’s – and, for that matter, Lenin’s – materialism is the creation of an episteme allowing for thinking in terms of the concrete and constituting thought of objectivity.


The most important aspect of Marx’s definition of the concrete is that the concrete is treated first of all as an objective characteristic of a thing considered quite independently from any evolutions that may take place in the cognising subject. […] Concreteness is not created in the process of reflection of the object by the subject either at the sensual stage of reflection or at the rational-logical one. In other words, ‘the concrete’ is first of all the same kind of objective category as any other category of materialist dialectics, as ‘the necessary’ and ‘the accidental’, ‘essence, and ‘appearance’. It expresses a universal form of development of nature, society, and thinking. In the system of Marx’s views, ‘the concrete’ is by no means a synonym for the sensually given, immediately contemplated.[5]


In Ilyenkov, concrete is, therefore, a form of conceptualization, one determined by the material and shaped objectively, which is achieved through assuming a third party’s perspective as per Marx’s method, while its “identity of the last instance”[6] can be an “abstraction,” akin to Sohn-Rethel’s notion of real abstraction, as discussed above. Put differently, in Laruellian terms, its material can be of transcendental nature, similarly to the notion of Laruelle’s transcendental or philosophical “material,”[7] whereas its effects are real. Not only are they real, they are also underpinned by a compound of material determinants grounding a structure of meaning similar to what Wittgenstein would call Maßstab, or, in English, scale (“of the real”) ,[8] or to the notion of “syntax of the real” as developed by Laruelle in Introduction to Non-Marxism.[9] This is the type of dialectics Ilyenkov refers to in the above cited passage, whereby the gap between cognition and the concrete object of cognizing retains its status of a productive contradiction and implies a movement of sublation understood as in Marx’s doctoral dissertation rather than as a redeeming (through unity) reconciliation of contradicting instances. In other words, the concrete ought to remain concrete instead of undergoing self-transcendence culminating in some form of ideality, even if presented as materialist, such as in Dietzgen’s synthesis.[10] The following passage from Ilyenkov offers further corroboration of the comparative interpretation just presented:


This use of the term ‘abstract’ is not a terminological whim of Marx’s at all: it is linked with the very essence of his logical views, with the dialectical interpretation of the relation of forms of thinking and those of objective reality, with the view of practice (sensual activity involving objects) as a criterion of the truth of the abstractions of thought. Still less can this usage be explained as ‘a throwback to Hegelianism’: it is against Hegel that Marx’s proposition is directed to the effect that ‘the simplest economic category, e.g., exchange value … cannot exist except as an abstract, unilateral relation of an already existing concrete organic whole.’[11]


The categories in which materialists think are, by definition and unavoidably, “abstract,” but that abstraction is neither substituted for the real nor do they, the real and thought insofar as abstraction (by definition), constitute a unity of reality and truth – a philosophical realization or actualization of the Being, be it material or ideal. The concrete is not the sensual as both Ilyenkov and Lenin[12] explain, it is conceptual. On the other hand, the abstract is not ideal but rather a human product of cognition, an entity of the transcendental order which can be but unilaterally positioned vis-à-vis the concrete, and through it the real as the concrete is the closes to the above mentioned “scale of reality.” In Ilyenkov’s analysis, we can see the unilateral duality at work, the same one we already noted in Marx’s own writings, his dissertation more specifically, as we did in Laruelle’s method too, discussed above.


In conclusion, I would like to point out to the fact that, in the era of the rise of the poststructuralist episteme, we witness a perpetuation of the very logic that Sohn-Rethel (and similarly, Ilyenkov too) sought to defeat: without discussing individual authors, I can safely argue that the old division between manual (the physical) and intellectual (immaterial) labor was reinforced, as well as the implication of the superiority of the latter in terms of its emancipatory potential. I am referring to the reception of Sohn-Rethel discussed in Alberto Toscano’s paper The Open Secret of the Real Abstraction, focusing mainly on Paolo Virno and Lorenzo Cillario.[13]“General intellect” seems to be transcending the value form of capitalism whereas praxis is dismissed by reducing the concrete to the sensuous, physical, and sensory, committing the fallacy Ilyenkov warns against, as presented above. The objective of Sohn-Rethel’s project, similarly to Ilyenkov’s, was to convey an accurate reading, and, based on that, a productive expansion, of the epistemological foundation of Marx’s project. In a letter to Adorno, cited by Toscano, Sohn-Rethel writes:


‘[…] fetish-concept of logic has a different social referent with regard to the fetish-concept of value. The latter refers to the antagonism between capital and labor, the former to the antithesis between intellectual and manual labor […][14]


The two are connected in a “genetic” sense as Sohn-Rethel puts it,[15] and in arguing so he retains orthodox fidelity to Marx: the exchange value form is affirmed as abstraction, albeit treating it as a determining reality (akin to the notion of “social relations,” for example). The abstraction in question does not become real through any kind of (general) “Intellect” being objectified or realized. Such reasoning would imply the fallacy of reification. The dialectics between use and surplus value is at the core of capitalism, it determines wage labor as commodified. It determines every commodity for that matter, and its very logic of auto-acceleration (M-M’ superceding M-C-M) demonstrates that it culminates in the exchange of pure value that transcends commodity or anything material (think of speculative economy).

[16] This would be the determination of the last instance of capitalist universe. It is in that way indeed that economic production determines everything in society – it is the beating heart of a universe of social relations that recreate the same model of subjectivation in all forms, ranging from art and science to the organization of kinship and intimacy.

[1] We dare call it a dogma considering the fact that USSR as a state, its institutions and the ruling party, and through that the Comintern, carefully curated a particular reading of Marx’s and Engel’s original writing, mainly based on Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio-criticism (originally published in 1909).

[2] V. I. Lenin, Collected Works Vol. 14: Materialism and Empirio-criticism (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1977).

[3] Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-criticism, 117-126.

[4] Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-criticism, 341.

[5] Evald Ilyenkov, The Dialectics of the Abstract & the Concrete in Marx?s Capital, trans. Sergei Kuzyakov (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1982), available at https://www.marxists.org/archive/ilyenkov/works/abstract/index.htm, accessed on 27 February 2022: Ch. 1, s.p.

[6] François Laruelle, Theory of Identities, trans. Alyosha Edlebi (New York, Columbia University Press: 2016), 59, 120, 135-140.

[7] François Laruelle, Philosophy and Non-Philosophy, trans. Taylor Adkins (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press-Univocal Publishing, 2013), 22 et passim.

[8] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, trans. FrankP. Ramsey and Charles Kay Ogden. (London: Kegan Paul, 1922), 2.1512; or: “scale applied to reality,” in German: Es ist wie ein Maßstab an die Wirklichkeit angelegt (2.1512).

[9] François Laruelle, Introduction to Non-Marxism, trans. Anthony Paul Smith (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press-Univocal Publishing, 2014).

[10] Tony Burns, “Joseph Dietzgen and the History of Marxism” Science & Society 66:2 (2002): 202–27.

[11] Ilyenkov, The Dialectics of the Abstract & the Concrete in Marx?s Capital, available at https://www.marxists.org/archive/ilyenkov/works/abstract/index.htm, accessed on 27 February 2022: Ch. 1, s.p.

[12] Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, 45-46; cf.: “The difference between materialism and ‘Machism’ in this particular question thus consists in the following. Materialism, in full agreement with natural science, takes matter as primary and regards consciousness, thought, sensation as secondary, because in its well-defined form sensation is associated only with the higher forms of matter (organic matter), while ‘in the foundation of the structure of matter” one can only surmise the existence of a faculty akin to sensation.’” (46)

[13] Alberto Toscano ‘The Open Secret of Real Abstraction, Rethinking Marxism (2008) 20:2, 282 — 287.

[14] Sohn-Rethel to Adorno cited in Toscano’s The Open Secret of the Real Abstraction (281).

[15] Toscano, Ibid., quoting Sohn-Rethel to Adorno: Alfred Sohn-Rethel and Theodor Adorno, Carteggio 1936/1969 (Rome: manifestolibri, 2000), 112.

[16] Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. II, Part 2: Chapter 4, trans. I. Lasker (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1956), available at https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1885-c2/, accessed on 12 May 2022.

[6] François Laruelle, Theory of Identities, trans. Alyosha Edlebi (New York, Columbia University Press: 2016), 59, 120, 135-140.

[7] François Laruelle, Philosophy and Non-Philosophy, trans. Taylor Adkins (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press-Univocal Publishing, 2013), 22 et passim.

[8] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, trans. Frank P. Ramsey and Charles Kay Ogden. (London: Kegan Paul, 1922), 2.1512; or: “scale applied to reality,” in German: Es ist wie ein Maßstab an die Wirklichkeit angelegt (2.1512).

[9] François Laruelle, Introduction to Non-Marxism, trans. Anthony Paul Smith (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press-Univocal Publishing, 2014).

[10] Tony Burns, “Joseph Dietzgen and the History of Marxism” Science & Society 66:2 (2002): 202–27.

[11] Ilyenkov, The Dialectics of the Abstract & the Concrete in Marx?s Capital, available at https://www.marxists.org/archive/ilyenkov/works/abstract/index.htm, accessed on 27 February 2022: Ch. 1, s.p.

[12] Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, 45-46; cf.: “The difference between materialism and ‘Machism’ in this particular question thus consists in the following. Materialism, in full agreement with natural science, takes matter as primary and regards consciousness, thought, sensation as secondary, because in its well-defined form sensation is associated only with the higher forms of matter (organic matter), while ‘in the foundation of the structure of matter” one can only surmise the existence of a faculty akin to sensation.’” (46)

[13] Alberto Toscano ‘The Open Secret of Real Abstraction, Rethinking Marxism (2008) 20:2, 282 — 287.

[14] Sohn-Rethel to Adorno cited in Toscano’s The Open Secret of the Real Abstraction (281).

[15] Toscano, Ibid., quoting Sohn-Rethel to Adorno: Alfred Sohn-Rethel and Theodor Adorno, Carteggio 1936/1969 (Rome: manifestolibri, 2000), 112.

[16] Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. II, Part 2: Chapter 4, trans. I. Lasker (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1956), available at https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1885-c2/, accessed on 12 May 2022.

[12] Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, 45-46; cf.: “The difference between materialism and ‘Machism’ in this particular question thus consists in the following. Materialism, in full agreement with natural science, takes matter as primary and regards consciousness, thought, sensation as secondary, because in its well-defined form sensation is associated only with the higher forms of matter (organic matter), while ‘in the foundation of the structure of matter” one can only surmise the existence of a faculty akin to sensation.’” (46)

[13] Alberto Toscano ‘The Open Secret of Real Abstraction, Rethinking Marxism (2008) 20:2, 282 — 287.

[14] Sohn-Rethel to Adorno cited in Toscano’s The Open Secret of the Real Abstraction (281).

[15] Toscano, Ibid., quoting Sohn-Rethel to Adorno: Alfred Sohn-Rethel and Theodor Adorno, Carteggio 1936/1969 (Rome: manifestolibri, 2000), 112.

[16] Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. II, Part 2: Chapter 4, trans. I. Lasker (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1956), available at https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1885-c2/, accessed on 12 May 2022.