[OPE-L] Where "dialectical materialism" really comes from

From: Jurriaan Bendien (adsl675281@TISCALI.NL)
Date: Fri Feb 02 2007 - 19:10:59 EST

Hi Howard:

I really have to get on with other stuff now, but I'll try to answer some of
your queries anyway.

I said that "economic value as such" is unobservable. It refers to a
socially conferred attribute of products and assets which can express three
kinds of relationships at once: between people; between people and things;
and between things. That attribute itself is most universally expressed and
symbolised in money, but that is not the only expression it can have.

Economic value relations can be objectified relations which exist
mind-independently, though not independently of minds, because they are a
social effect of human society. That is, they can exist irrespectively of
how you or I happen to interpret them, and it may be a work of science to
discover what their real nature is. But any bona fide anthropologist can
tell you that you can observe value relations, insofar as you can observe
the interactions between people, between people and things, and between

Arguably you cannot directly observe a "relation" as such, it's conceptual,
you have to think the association, it's an interpretation or inference. But
it may be not just conceptual, but a real relation existing irrespective of
what concepts are formed about it, or what people think about it, or how
they interpret it. Yet, you can infer the existence of a relation, insofar
as it is observably expressed by an interaction or context of some sort.
Very simple really.

At any time, the majority of products and assets in society do not have
actual prices or exchange-values, because they are not being traded. But
obviously they do have a value. That value exists independently of their
exchange, people know this very well, and behave accordingly, although their
personal estimates of what that value is, might differ wildly from what it
really is or turns out to be. At best, we can approximate that unpriced
value with an imputed money-price (an ideal price of some sort) which they
would have "if" they were traded under certain conditions, or, with the
quantity of labour-time it would currently take to reproduce them, or, with
their relative scarcity, or, with the intensity of demand for them etc.

I think Karl Marx never believed that he could scientifically "prove" his
concept of "economic value as such", although many Marxists claim they can.
No such scientific proof is possible. At best you can say that a particular
concept of value enables you to theorise economic life consistently, in such
a way that you can explain it satisfactorily and predict how it is most
likely to develop, better than any other theory. In other words, a concept
of value proves its utility by its explanatory and predictive power. You
might have some economic phenomena to explain, you assume some hypotheses
about value, and on that basis you try to explain the phenomena.

What Marx tries to explain (his explanandum) is the origins, dynamics and
structure of the capitalist economy as a whole, and he assumes a concept of
value to explain it. But the fact that he assumes it, does not prove it is
true obviously, the only proof possible is that he is able to generate an
explanation of the capitalist economy which is logically sound, can explain
the relevant experiential evidence, and is useful to people (of course he
aimed mainly at those people oppressed by capitalism, to provide them with
insight into what was oppressing them). Plus, of course, that the analysis
is superior to any other relevant analysis, i.e. it can explain and predict
more, it is more useful. Scientific progress typically occurs through the
contest between rival theories and the relevant evidence.

A year after Das Kapital Vol. 1 was finally published, Marx thus commented
in a letter: "As for the Centralblatt, the man is making the greatest
concession possible by admitting that, if value means anything at all, then
my conclusions must be conceded. The unfortunate fellow does not see that,
even if there were no chapter on 'value' at all in my book, the analysis I
give of the real relations would contain the proof and demonstration of the
real value relation. The chatter about the need to prove the concept of
value arises only from complete ignorance both of the subject under
discussion and of the method of science." etc. etc.

BTW Can you prove the "concept" of gravity? I don't think you can. You can
give practical proofs and theoretical proofs for the existence of gravity,
within certain limits, but you can also show that gravity is suspended or
doesn't exist under certain conditions. Nevertheless the concept of gravity
has so much explanatory power, predictive power, and utility that we
continue to use it. At least I do.

So anyway there you have it - Marx says himself the idea that you could
prove the concept of value is stupid. It is stupid because you cannot prove
it, anymore than I can scientifically prove e.g. the truth of a moral
principle. All you can prove is that using a concept of value, you can give
a persuasive "analysis of the real relations" in the sense it meets the four
criteria I mentioned. Those real relations are observable as I said, in
terms of the empirical interactions and effects they involve.

From around the time that he wrote his Theses of Feuerbach, Marx was not
really concerned anymore with epistemological or ontological questions at
all. I realise Marxists are concerned with it, but Marx wasn't. He grew
tired of philosophical concept-mongering and metaphysics, he wanted to
understand the real world in order to change it, and for the purpose he
needed concepts disciplined by experience, not simply finer and finer
distinctions which somebody dreamt up one night because he thought the world
would look more interesting that way.

It is true that Marx rejected Hegel's objective idealism as an absurdity,
but I think after he had criticised the Hegelians he was finished with all
that. Instead he "surfed" through the economic literature and social
statistics etc. Later when he had to write and publish a story about his
research findings, he deliberately mimicked Hegel in some ways. That is to
say, he illustrated the dialectical characteristics of the people-people,
people-thing, thing-thing relations which I mentioned before. If you try to
depict and explain a dynamic phenomenon in its totality, that can be a
dialectical project.

Does this mean Marx thought that reality really had characteristics which
could be described as dialectical? Probably, yes. You can hardly say that
dialectical ideas exist while denying dialectical characteristics in other
parts of reality. But contrary to Hegel, I think Marx did not believe that
you should try to speculatively intuit these dialectical properties or
"assume" their existence - rather you discovered what these dialectical
properties were, in the course of research about the real relations that you
were concerned with. Hegel fell into the illusion that he could grasp the
dynamics of world history through philosophy, that was the point, you
can't - you have to investigate it empirically to find out.

I do not ignore way the world is, in favor of what we can know about the
world, nor do I say that that Marx was concerned with epistemology, but not
ontology. I am saying that if Marxists did some more real research, rather
than talk twaddle about "hidden essences", they would discover an enormous
amount about the real nature of the world, and that in turn would enable
them to assist changing the world for the better, far more. It is useless to
constantly debate about "what we might be able to know or not know about the
world", when you could be on your way finding out. It is useless to develop
an "ontology of the world" when in reality all you are doing is inventing a
satisfying personal metaphysic. I am not saying a satisfying personal
metaphysic is useless, but it should not be confused with, or pretend to be,
a revelation about the real nature of the universe, or something like that.

I worked for a while as research statistician doing questionnaire design and
classification development, and you do strike these epistemic and
ontological problems. Even so, the problems are mainly practical in nature -
what can you survey? What can you reliably measure? What categorisations
meet your survey objectives? What question-wording yields the least response
error? How valid are your survey objectives? And so on. You do use a bit of
metaphysics sometimes, but that is for example because there is far more in
the world than you can survey or indeed know, and therefore in making
distinctions and generalisations you have to assume some things which you
cannot prove at the same time. As Polanyi said once, "we know more than we
can tell". There's also tacit knowledge.

Opinions differ on what abstraction is, but probably, all abstractive
processes are founded on three main operations which many living organisms
are capable of:

1) Stimulus identification (it's there, or it is not there etc.)
2) Stimulus generalisation (this is like that, this is the same as that,
this belongs to that class of objects, etc.)
3) Stimulus discrimination (this is different from that, this class of
objects is different from that class of objects, this is larger than that,

From this you initially get a primitive associational logic, then a stock of
increasingly sophisticated metaphors and concepts, and in the end things
like higher mathematics, linguistics and fine arts. I originally studied
education at varsity, and you see this process reflected in child
development and human development, from blubbering infants to old people.
But in anthropology, history and evolutionary biology you can study the
process as reflected in world history. It is not necessarily a linear
progress, sometimes you get relapses to an earlier stage, sometimes leaps
ahead, and so on. You can have your personal philosophy about that, and I
do, but I wouldn't pretend that it's necessarily an objective view of life,
the universe and everything.

You argue that "The problem is that the way the world is likely determines
what we can know about it, but not the reverse." I regard this as an
undialectical view, because what we can know about the world, influences the
world, changes the world and in part makes it the way it is. If that wasn't
the case there would not be much point in knowing anything.

The reason that Marx talks about the "inner laws of capital" is because he
believed that the motion of capital in the world acquired dynamics of its
own, its own laws or lawlike regularities, beyond and independent of the
activity of particular individuals. The individuals therefore had to adjust
their activity to the motion of capital, rather than the other way round.
They might even become the "slaves of capital". So, they were dominated by
their own creations, subject to forces beyond their control. A popular
expression for this is "market forces" or the "investment climate" - these
are references to forces beyond personal control, like the weather. Many
Marxists "intuit" the motion of capital philosophically, but that is not
what Marx did or intended. You had to really research it.

When you did research it, you often found that the real relationships were
inverted in consciousness - it looks like A is the cause of B but in reality
B causes A, and so on, just like it looks like the sun turns around the
earth, while in reality the earth turns around the sun. But this is not a
ontological or epistemological thesis, it's just a research finding which
you can demonstrate with facts. Marx wrote wrily "if the essence and
appearance of phenomena directly coincided, there would be no need for
science". Quite, everything would be transparent and obvious. But then along
come the Marxists, and they invent the philosophical doctrine of
"essentialism". They want to say that they know there are "hidden
structures" out there, without being able to prove those structures are
there, after all, they are "hidden". You can only know them, they say,
"through theory". What has this got to do with Marx? Nothing. It's just
metaphysics. Sure, reality extends beyond what we can observe, but what is
so profound about that? It becomes profound only if we can prove that
observables are necessarily caused by unobservables. But they have no such
proof. There is only the doctrine of essentialism.

You argue: "the metaphysical assumptions we inevitably make have no special
status that people are entitled to - I have no entitlement to the
metaphysical assumptions that underwrite my belief in flat earth theory."
But the "flat earth theory" is not metaphysical anymore. It is demonstrably
a false theory. Nevertheless if somebody wants to believe the earth is flat,
then I will defend their right to believe that, provided they take
responsibility for the consequences of that belief. Naturally I will also
defend the right to question or criticise that belief. Whether I would
respect it, would depend on the nature of the case. It could just be

You say: "'Entitlement' is not why imposing ideas by force is bad practice."
I am not fussed about the word "entitlement", but why? Is this a
jurisprudential comment? All human beings have a spiritual side to them, a
"spiritual core" if you like. You could describe it in different ways,
different religions have different languages for talking about it, but it is
there. For example, we talk about "the revolutionary spirit of Karl Marx".
People have personal beliefs, and so on. In civil society, they need to be
respected. There is not much point in criticising them, particularly if
there is no personal or intimate relationship, what we criticise rather is
what is done in the name of those beliefs. If bad things are done in the
name of certain spiritual beliefs, we could reasonably conclude there is
something wrong with those spiritual beliefs. But we can hardly stamp out
those spiritual beliefs, at least not without doing real damage to the
people who hold them. At best we can discuss why we think they are wrong or
mistaken, but it is in the nature of spiritual beliefs that they are often
not amenable to reason. Consequently we focus on real and observable
behaviour, i.e. the real things which are done in the name of spiritual

You say: "We need to secure individual autonomy and how anyone fashions
belief is part of that.  But it is not a consequence of this that we need to
put the theory of evolution in inverted commas for fear of committing
spiritual rape." Well, obviously, but you are running together a number of
different things. The theory of human evolution is a scientific theory open
to empirical verification and testing. The belief in evolution theory is
something different. People can believe all sorts of things, including
scientific theories, without knowing anything about them in a scientific
sense. Marxism is a case in point.



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