“Forget the Dialectic”

Heres a _rough_ version of the paper I gave at the Marxist Literary Group – Institute on Culture and Society 2010 in Antigonish at St. Francis Xavier University:

Forget The Dialectic

Too many

Movement philosophers,

not enough

moving philosophy.

The curse of





make a motion,

fake e-motion.

We need more





in the heat

of resistance.

–Ron Sakolsky, Swift Winds


To begin, I offer a story from the beginning of Stephen Hawking’s famous book A Brief History of Time (though the story is definitely not a Hawking original):

A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: “What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.” The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, “What is the tortoise standing on?” “You’re very clever, young man, very clever”, said the old lady. “But it’s turtles all the way down!”

Subsequently, I might ask: isn’t that the orthodox historical materialist approach to the capitalist mode of production?  With the flat plate being a totality and the tortoises being the assortment of fixed forms that different Marxists rest that totality upon [the material base, the productive process, or the working class].

If that’s the case, it is my contention that the thought of French philosopher Gilles Deleuze (with and without Guattari) is a modern Copernican Revolution for Marxism.  Breaking the dead-lock of the slow tortoise-like march for a revolution that always seems just beyond the horizon, Deleuze and Guattari suggest that,

The human sciences, with their materialist, evolutionary, and even dialectical schemas, lag behind the richness and complexity of causal relations in physics, or even in biology. Physics and biology present us with reverse causalities that are without finality but testify nonetheless to an action of the future on the present, or of the present on the past, for example, the convergent wave and the anticipated potential, which imply an inversion of time. More than breaks or zigzags, it is these reverse causalities that shatter [teleological accounts of] evolution. (431)

To build my case, I proposes concrete alternatives to often-criticized features of dialectical thought, namely its conceptions of negativity, mediation and hylomorphism, totality, and time, by drawing on a crowd of non-dialectical philosophers employed by Deleuze and Guattari.  The paper leans heavily on Friedrich Nietzsche, Gilbert Simondon, Baruch Spinoza, Bernhard Riemann, and Henri Bergson to suggest a model of immanent causality against the backdrop of Althusser.

Negativity and Difference

One of the most crucial bones to pick with Hegel is his conception of difference.  No doubt we are indebted to him to dispel the ‘common sense’ of ‘indifferent difference’, where identity is an essential, true characteristic of being where difference is merely the relation between various identities — for example early modern race science that thought of the world as a collection of races that are distinct identifiable varieties that are easily categorized into separate groups  (Hegel 1977a: 102).  The position Hegel developed to replace ‘indifferent difference’ or non-productive difference argued the absolute and negative work of difference: identity is only established through otherness — things are defined by what they are not.  Many structuralist and post-structuralist critical theories of race, gender and other categories _of difference_ operate according to this logic — the Orient is produced through its relation to the West.  So while this takes a step beyond representational thinking, it replaces it with a negative dialectic.  As being is negated, it produces new differentiated forms.  For example, Camille Paglia writes, “A woman simply is, but a man must become. Masculinity is risky and elusive. It is achieved by a revolt from woman, and it is confirmed only by other men”. [[is this a bad quote?]]  But as the Paglia example demonstrates, the idealism of the Hegelian model requires an origin (the ‘woman’ of feminine sexuality of Lacan, in this case) to negate in order to make being possible. [i]

An example of this in Marxist political practice is the command to “accelerate the contradictions” that makes revolution look more appealing by making the current moment intolerable.[ii] Displayed clearly in Slavoj Zizek’s theory of over-identification, the strategy is not to pick a correct or virtuous position, but as a springboard to provokes a desired response.  Zizek’s gadflyism combines postmodern irony with dialectical negation to turn the play between relations into fulcrums for political maneuvering that is essential reactive.FN[iii] And it is this position that is the basis for Deleuze and Guattari’s critique of lack as Oedipal.  They argue that whenever difference is conceived of as the effect of a system to which we are simultaneously compelled to take part [Law] in but in doing so are hopelessly robbed of immediacy and presence [capitalism], the only movement possible within the system is one that binds us closer to the system.  As the state and capital become necessary coordinates for the strategic grid, even if the strategy is a political aikido whereby the weight of the system is used against itself, the state and capital are reinscribed as hidden mediators in every political move — or as Nietzsche says, a reinfection of the wound.

affirming difference, not negative difference

–negri on motor of history (not reactive resistance of prole to capitalist appropriation, but capital that is reactive)

Subverting the philosophical concept of original unity, Deleuze argues that Nietzsche presents a concept of original difference.  There is no undifferentiated manifold from which we cut up with language, for example, but a univocal field of difference.  At its most basic level, everything is different, even if that difference is imperceptible. Therefore, difference is not set as a *difference from* an original sameness, but a primary difference that is constantly differentiating.  Movement doesn’t require setting an element in orbit around in order to slingshot it forward.  Dialectical oppositions are  reactive moves that either draw on some (false) transcendent authority or offer denigrated restrictions.  As a friend reminded me,

Even in biology, the movement of feet, while they alternate when walking, represent a mutually engaged dance and not a friction-generating struggle. Sometimes there is hopping, and both feet move simultaneously parallel. An alternating gate does not represent movement at cross-purpose. In jazz, a syncopated rhythm does not produce dissonance. Movement is first and foremost transgression. It is not transcendence or synthesis.[iv]

The payoff is an affirmative philosophy that isn’t a reactive overcoming, but an enabling: what can concepts create? what are the effects?


Hegel’s development of the dialectic depends on internal and necessary connections between elements of a totality.  It posits that elements of a whole are mere expressions of an internal essence, each element is a phenomenal and adequate expression of the whole.  This relation is crucial to Hegel’s thought and through this idealist kernel, each element of a whole (economic, political, legal, literary, religious, etc.) is made to as immediately adequate to the inner essence and Spirit of the whole – the Protestantism of religion and economics, the privations of civil and political life (For Marx: 186-7).   Movement within a totality is therefore possible only through contradictions, therefore the attempt of certain Marxists to find the determinate condition that will cause the whole of the capitalist mode of production to come tumbling down.

Deleuze and Guattari’s approach doesn’t deny that there can be massive shifts in systems, but they use the model of non-linear physics called ‘chaos theory’ or ‘non-linear dynamical system theory’ whereby all matter is connected through a set of singularities into ensembles without becoming a totality or whole.[v] Accordingly systems have a coefficient of converge but also divergence, indexed in its degree of tolerance describing how much variation is allowed.  So rather than describing a society according to its contradictions, they propose that societies should be first defined by their lines of flight.  More descriptively, following their famous formulation of the ‘capitalist axiomatic’, they argue that because of the perpetuation process of de-territorialization, capitalism is always producing more problems (or as the recently popular phrase goes, ‘capitalism is crisis’), so capture is always a secondary reaction of adding/subtracting axioms to re-territorialize the perpetual flow of problems and put them to use.  And because the expansion of capitals frontiers follows a non-totalizing non-linear process and operates on the abstract level of axioms, with every move it compounds and complexifies making its movements relatively unpredictable (Holland:np).  But with one false step, a bad axiom might disrupt the system.

There are at least two benefits to assemblage theory for revolutionary practice.  The first is a theory of critical mass or tipping point. Single actions that would be called reformist according an old perspective become potentially revolution, but in their intersection/interaction, reaching a tipping point that would be definitive or categorical.   The second is a theory of effects disproportionate to their causes.  If capitalist is conceived of as an open and not a closed system, then one minor development is able to produce a disproportionate amount of change (because it is non-linear).  This challenges the notion that there’s a single place that is the lever — you’re always in the middle. [[ this could use more explanation, maybe an example from MDL’s 1kyrs but it’s already too long ]]

— Riemannian space

Mediation & Hylomorphism

Borrowing from Kant, structuralists proclaimed that the world is just one damn thing after another — it doesn’t re-present some already present value but is in of itself senseless, meaningless, and unidentifiable until structures of thought are imposed upon it.  Similarly, Hegel philosophy is hylomorphic, via the necessity of mediation, as demonstrated by his concept of double negation.  Hegel argues that being doesn’t simply present itself to thought, and therefore unknowable except through something not being like language or concepts.  And then to return to being from that concept, a second negation is required.  Thought then works to mediate access to all phenomena.  A prime example would be both Althusser and Žižek systems of ideology, which are based on Lacanian Hegelianism.  Following their account, ideology is what gives meaning to the otherwise senselessness of the Real (Mapping Ideology 4, some ISA pg number).

This should already raise flags, because as Gilbert Simondon notes, this account of matter is a “socialized representation of work” like a master commanding slave labor (49).  Or for Deleuze and Guattari, it is the image of fascist desire whereby a leader is necessary to stave off chaos by establishing order.

Hegel’s theory of society follows a similar hylomorphic model of mediation.  There are three-parts: natural, civil, and political society.  Natural society works as a foundational multiplicity of atomistic needs and interests that are un-organized. “Physics with its molecules and particles suffers from the atom, this principle of extreme externality, which is thus utterly devoid of the Notion, just as much as does the theory of the State which starts from the particular will of individuals” (Science of Logic: 167).  At each level, first civil society and then political society, the particular interests and needs that originated in natural society are submitted to “the universal sustaining medium, to the might of the entire nation” (Phenomenology of Spirit: 213) – reducing differences to commonalities until a universal interest of society can be derived and realized within the State form.

Hegelian Marxists expand on this mode, seeing the state as the primary mode for seizing control of the means of production.  So in Lenin’s What is To Be Done, we get the vanguard party that dialectically mediates the working class, externally directing spontaneity and educating them to bring about class-consciousness.  Even in more democratic forms like Gramsci’s organic intellectual who arises from within the working class rather than outside it, the party only becomes politically efficacious is it is able to “absorb” or “assimilate all of society” (quoted in Hardt: 30).[vi] Therefore, the dialectical movement whereby class-consciousness is transformed from a class-in-itself into the class-for-itself happens through a mediation that militates and educates.[vii]

For Deleuze, however, difference is not a system of thought that gives meaning to an otherwise meaningless world.  Substance contains its own latent self-organizing processes and it emits signs of its thought.  And if we’re good at reading those signs, we increase our power to act in the world.  Being is univocal — a single plane from which different attributes all speak in the same voice. Similar to Hegel, Deleuze argues for a relation between matter and thought.  But rather than holding them holding them opposed (whether it be with matter over thought or thought over matter), matter and thought are two attributes of a single differential plane of being.  It is then not a matter of mediating consciousness to arrive at matter, both thought and extension are equal expressions of being.[viii] “What is involved is no longer the affirmation of a single substance, but rather the laying out of a common plane of immanence on which all bodies, all minds, and all individuals are situated” (SPP: 122).[ix]

There is a substantial political payoff.  For Spinoza, force (puissance) arises directly from assemblages.  The political imperative is to foster the force that develops from assemblages and not mediated into power.  Why?  It doesn’t get fixed, like in Hegelian models where people must alienate themselves through a social contract and hand over their power to be synthesized and re-imposed on a ‘higher plane’ for the greater good.  This isn’t meant as a blanket condemnation of all forms of mediation, but the function of mediation in the role of establishing the state and capital are at the top of the agenda.  One must evaluate the role of mediation on a case-by-case basis.  Much more fluid models that emphasize following the singular nature of various the political movements without knowing where it’s going to lead you.[x] This is the ‘affinities of affinities’ which works to build traversal resonances between struggles without the need for central coordination; the ‘horizontalists’ of Latin and South America, the black block and autonomists of Europe, “direct” or “participatory” democracy of the United States, and beyond – all groups committed to alternative, extra-parliamentary politics avoiding the antagonistic modes of power that are expressed in the state form.


Time is non-linear.  You can’t move back and forth in time the same way that you can place your finger on a line, tracing it back and forth.  If you wanted to remember what you did last Thursday, you don’t have to recall everything that happened to you from the present moment back.  In fact, the future is asymmetric to the past.  It is infinitely more open than the past, it is open and indeterminate, but past still casts its shadow.  And that past has to be conceived very carefully in order to retain the openness of the future.  There’s a reading of the past that says we know how we got here, this is the standard Marxist historiography, which flattens the past by reducing it to a series of convergent sets.  And as they say, it’s always a victor that gives that account because it justifies their position in the present, even if it’s a position of servitude.

According to Deleuze, time is always split in two; every present contains the present-as-present and a present soon to be past.  As time is passes, the present-as-present fades away while the pasts accumulate as a contemporaneous block of time.  As the next present approaches, one is plucked from the open (infinite, but restricted) potential of the future, adding new (present)-pasts to the block of time.  The only thing for sure is the eternal return of difference, what returns in the future is always difference, open-ended and productive.  Time is therefore structural, there’s a proportion of divergence and convergence.

This is where the much talked about Deleuzian virtual/actual distinction comes in.  First, we have to look at the distinction the Deleuze is trying to replace: possible/real.  According to Deleuze, in the possible/real doublet operates according to resemblance and limitation, making only the possible productive.  Once something is possible, a real the resembles the possible is realized and the possibles that aren’t realized are excluded (‘limited out’).[xi] But the virtual and the actual are both productive.  The virtual is the collection of pasts as a block of time, acting as a structure on the present (Deleuze quotes Proust is saying it’s “real without being actual, ideal without being abstract”.)  The actual is the process of selectively affirming a present from the virtual, which adds new pasts to the virtual as it propels the present into the future.

According to this approach, there is no wastebin of history.  History doesn’t ‘run its course’, expending the past like a limited resource (which would be the possible/real position).  Rather, the conditions in which certain ideas are realized is constantly changing, making the outcome always different (the eternal return of difference).  Therefore, “actually existing socialism” isn’t the ‘failed experiment’ that many people accuse it of.  Combining the richness of the virtual multiplicity of the past with the open potential of the future, “actually existing socialisms” hold a wide range of determinate conditions that are actualized with substantially different results, as in the USSR, China, Cuba, Bolivia and Venezuela. Even more provocatively, as history seems to converge on some predictable patterns, it is always subject to many divergent paths.  A non-linear historical materialism wouldn’t trace the path of ‘how we got here’, but opens up analysis to the wider field of events that might be brought to bear on the transcendental conditions of the real without a direct linear connection to the present.  One example is Deleuze and Guattari’s consideration of the genesis of capitalism: what happened in Ancient Rome, which had the conditions necessary for capitalism, that prevented its emergence?  The answer is simple: there is a contingency in the encounter between the various inputs between capitalism, which all have their own history, an always-existing potential for the independent elements to upset the chemical process of capital by splitting off and become otherwise.

A Short Conclusion

If communism is the real movement that abolishes the present state of things, is the dialectic central to that movement, or are there non-dialectical ways to actualize real movement?

The philosophy of historical materialism, which seeks to pose the problems of genesis and structure offers a foundation for the paper.  But contrary to Hegel’s transcendent philosophy, I argued that non-dialectical communism generates movement by posing problematics and providing the terms by which affirmative responses can be actualized.  My hope is that this alternative movement is able to move beyond the slow pace of the tortoise, opening up the processes of the circuit of capital valorization to real movement that can abolish the present state of things.

Fun quote: Butler, Subjects of Desire 183-4: “References to a ‘break’ with Hegel are almost always impossible, if only because Hegel has made the very notion of ‘breaking with’ into the central tenet of the dialectic.”

Althusser – For Marx, “ISAs”

Day, Richard JF – Gramsci Is Dead

D – Nietzsche, D+R, SPP, C2


Hardt – Wither of Civil Society

Hawking — Brief History of Time

Hegel – Science of Logic

Paglia — Sex, Art,

Simondon – l’individu et sa genèse physico-biologique

Zizek — Plague of Phantasies, Mapping Ideology

time, Bergson

negativity, Nietzsche

mediation, Spinoza

totality, Riemann

its hylomorphism, Simondon

[i] Deleuze’s Bergsonian critique of Hegel v/v Determination — As discussed above, for Hegel, differentiation only happens when a thing encounters its other.  This ‘exteriority account’ of difference requires what Deleuze calls a philosophy of “infinite representation” (D+R: 42).  Even more importantly, Deleuze argues that in an exteriority account of difference the cause is external to its effect, which makes being not necessary but the result of contingent accidental encounter (Hardt:7-8).

[ii] Here is a collection of quotes of older work on “accelerating the contradictions”

Hegel’s Logic (961)

Intelligent reflection, to mention this here, consists, on the contrary, in grasping and asserting contradiction. Even though it does not express the Notion of things and their relationships and has for its material and content only the determinations of ordinary thinking, it does bring these into a relation that contains their contradiction and allows their Notion to show or shine through the contradiction. Thinking reason, however, sharpens, so to say, the blunt difference of diverse terms, the mere manifoldness of pictorial thinking, into essential difference, into opposition. Only when the manifold terms have been driven to the point of contradiction to they become active and lively towards one another, receiving in contradiction the negativity which is the indwelling pulsation of self-movement and spontaneous activity.

Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts:

It is therefore another great achievement of modern English political economy to have declared rent of land to be the difference in the interest yielded by the worst and the best land under cultivation; to have [exposed] the landowner’s romantic illusions – his alleged social importance and the identity of his interest with the interest of society, a view still maintained by Adam Smith after the Physiocrats; and to [have] anticipated and prepared the movement of the real world which will transform the landowner into an ordinary, prosaic capitalist, and thus simplify and sharpen the contradiction [between capital and labour] and hasten its resolution. Land as land, and rent as rent, have lost their distinction of rank and become insignificant capital and interest – or rather, capital and interest that signify only money.

Rosa Luxemburg, Reform or Revolution

In other words, when evaluated from the angle of their final effect on capitalist economy, cartels and trusts fail as “means of adaptation.” They fail to attenuate the contradictions of capitalism. On the contrary, they appear to be an instrument of greater anarchy. They encourage the further development of the internal contradictions of capitalism. They accelerate the coming of a general decline of capitalism.

Lenin, The Heritage We Renounce

The enlightener believes in the present course of social development, because he fails to observe its inherent contradictions. The Narodnik fears the present course of social development, because he is already aware of these contradictions. The “disciple” [of dialectical materialism] believes in the present course of social development, because he sees the only earnest hope of a better future in the full development of these contradictions. The first and last trends therefore strive to support, accelerate, facilitate development along the present path, to remove all obstacles which hamper this development and retard it.

[iii] May I humbly suggest that while Orthodox Marxists are still utterly perplexed by the problem of uneven development, provoking something like Althusser’s over-determination, that a billiard-ball theory of revolution might not be in order…

How foolish it would be to suppose that one only needs to point out this origin and this misty shroud of delusion in order to destroy the world that counts for real, so-called “reality.” We can destroy only as creators.

–Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science

Here’s the Deleuze quote (Continuum edition p160 b/c i forgot my Nietzsche book at home…): “The speculative motor of the dialectic is contradiction and its resolution.  But its practical motor is alienation and suppression of alienation, alienation and reappropriation.  Here the dialectic reveals its true nature; an art of quibbling beyond all others, an art of disrupting properties and changing proprietors, and art of ressentiment.”

[iv] [[A ‘comment’ on my blog post of the abstract for this paper]]

[v] For example, Riemannian (rye-mun-ee-un) space, which is patchwork, heterogeneous, and has the capacity for continuous variation (ATP 485-6). The space is constructed piece-by-piece without the connections being pre-determined (Stivale, L’Abecedaire).

[vi] And as Richard JF Day notes, according to Gramsci “the apparatus of state coercive power which ‘legally’ enforced discipline on those who do not consent either active or passively’ (1971:12) is able to ‘dominate’ or even ‘liquidate’ antagonistic groups (‘enemies’) in time of crisis (57).

[vii] Another form of mediation I don’t have time for in this paper is the mediation of capital as mapped as parallel to the nuclear family in AO whereby the Father (Boss, Capital – name-of-the-father), through threat of castration, restricts access to the mother (Mother Earth – means of subsistence/life, means of production), and mediates the other social relations (commodification).  Explained well by Gene in Deleuze Dictionary reference to ‘schizo-analysis’.

[viii] “All that Spinozism needed to do for the univocal to become an object of pure affirmation was to make substance turn around the modes – in other words, to realize univocity in the form of repetition in the eternal return.” D+R 304

“What is involved is no longer the affirmation of a single substance, but rather the laying out of a common plane of immanence on which all bodies, all minds, and all individuals are situated.”  Spinoza PP – 122

[ix] And, “Univocal Being is at one and the same time nomadic distribution and crowned anarchy” (D+R 37).

And from Kant’s Critical Philosophy:

“The essence of univocal being is to include individuating differences while these differences do not have the same essence and do not change the essence of being—just as white includes various intensities while remaining essentially the same white.

… Being is said in a single and same sense of everything of which it is said, but that of which it is said differs: it is said of difference itself … It is not a matter of being which is distributed according to the requirements of representation, but of all things being divided up within being in the univocity of simple presence (the One–All). Such a difference is demonic rather than divine … Univocal being is at one and the same time nomadic distribution and crowned anarchy” (36–7).

[x] D&G’s itinerant.  — quote in ATP — (in effect) key critereon for eval science is the social relations that follow form it [[in masters thesis?]]  Also ref Day, yeah?

[xi] “the whole of existence is here related to a pre-formed element, from which everything is supposed to

emerge by a simple “realisation”” (Bergsonism: 20)

7 thoughts on ““Forget the Dialectic”

  1. The explanation of “DIALECTICAL MATERIALISM” can be explained with only a small fraction of the multitude of words that has been used in your diatribe.
    When a person has the intention of confusing a simple process of change, it is presented in a way that attempts to obscure the simplicity of that what is “DIALECTICS,” by unnecessary intellectualizing of that which can be simply described.

  2. What I want or need is not the point!
    Objectively, the meaning of “DIALECTICAL” change of MATTER in MOTION, could be explained simply and scientifically.

  3. You are thinking “objectively,”when your thinking is only guided by “verifiable evidence,” and NOT by “faith,” ‘subjective” notions and pre-conceived ideas and prejudices, that can and does betray the scientific method, of how to determine what is “TRUTH” and what is “REALITY!”

    The “STRUCTURE” of all forms of “MATTER” and the movement of all forms of matter can be understood scientifically.

    This movement is understood by most scientists using the scientific method as a “Dialectical Movement.”

    All forms of MATTER and everything that reflects on all forms of Matter moves in a similar pattern.

    That pattern can be observed and so it is scientifically predictable as to the past, present and future, evolution of “Matter in Motion.”

    And also, all ideas and thoughts, that reflect “MATTER IN MOTION!”

  4. Richard,

    I’m afraid there’s nothing ‘simple’ about the scientific method. And more importantly, it may not be possible to reconcile Hegel’s abstract idealist dialectic with the scientific method.

    Some of the most important aspects of Deleuze and Guattari’s thought, which I feel I expressed well with the quotes from Hawking and A Thousand Plateaus, is to bring materialism in line with the advances of 20th century physics.

    Unfortunately, I think the dialectic is only ‘simple’ in the event that one still relies on Newtonian physics (something that is roundly rejected by all contemporary scientific method practitioners) or an idealist metaphysics.

    If you still find my explanations too complicated, I’m sorry, but I think it’s an immensely difficult task to bring marxist materialism in line with non-linear dynamical systems theory (also known as chaos theory). An alternative might be to look at John Protevi’s work, which is much more thorough on both the science and philosophy.

  5. I am a high school dropout so forgive me if I am not familiar with the latest developments in scientific discovery.

    It appears to me from where I am standing that what you and your thesis is attempting to do is to reconcile a irreconcilable contradiction.

    It appears to me, and as far as I know, science can only prove the existence of “MATTER IN MOTION!” “Metaphysics” as far as I know has not been proven as being something that exists.

    If there is something that could be proven to exist outside of the material world, I am sure that I and the entire world would have heard about it.

    You can have all kinds of philosophical theories, but a philosophical theory is not evidence of a verifiable fact.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s