Further debate on Dunayevskaya, Hegel and dialectics
Editor's note: In the last issue of News & Letters, we published a review of Raya Dunayevskaya's THE POWER OF NEGATIVITY by Marx scholar Chris Arthur, as well as a response by Kevin Anderson, one of the editors of the book. Below we continue the debate with a response by Arthur and a rejoinder by Anderson.
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I do not at all discount the notion of absolute negativity. I am with the old Engels who counterposed Hegel’s method, rooted in the absolute negativity of reason, a dialectic which is in essence critical and revolutionary, to Hegel’s "system."
The problem with the notion of absolute negativity is its abstract character. It reduces all real movement to a purely logical category, complains Marx (MARX-ENGELS COLLECTED WORKS, Vol. 3, p. 343; MECW 6, p. 164). It is fine as a slogan against static closed metaphysics. But it cannot substitute for analysis (MECW 6, p. 163). This is a problem when the explanatory value of relating such abstract categories to reality comes in. As Marx said in 1843, Hegel does not provide the logic of the body politic but merely bodily trappings for logical categories (MECW 3, p. 16). So I am uneasy when Dunayevskaya finds all social struggles express the self-same "absolute negativity".
Moreover I disagree with Dunayevskaya in her attempt to recuperate for Marxism the "Absolutes" of Hegel’s system. I am glad that Anderson acknowledges she was wrong to say the syllogisms linking Idea, Nature and Spirit first appeared in 1830. However, he is right to point out that the very last sentence first appeared then. But I fail to see the connection of this sentence with any "new beginning." This sentence says that everything that has happened, is happening and will ever happen is just Absolute Spirit playing with itself, a sentiment he already expressed in the Preface to the PHENOMENOLOGY. The problem here is that this "mystical subject-object" (MECW 3, p. 342; MECW 4, p. 167) internalizes every relation and transition. "Hegel replaces the real connection between man and nature by an absolute subject-object which is at one and the same time the whole of nature and the whole of humanity, the Absolute Spirit" (MECW 4, p. 167). As Marx complained in 1844, this Absolute has no objective relations, hence it is a mere thought (MECW 3, p. 337). Thus there is a deep connection between Hegel’s monological ontology and his idealism.
In conclusion, my own appropriation of Hegel’s Absolute is exactly opposite to that of Dunayevskaya. If capital becomes absolute, it excludes new beginnings by definition. The question arises whether and where there is a pure self-referring movement not requiring mediation in something outside itself? There are two cases: 1) the logic, in which thought deals with thoughts; 2) the form of value, generated through a practical abstraction from the natural bodily form of wealth, and gaining self-movement through the circuit of capital; but although having the inner drive to become absolute capital cannot produce its "others," labor power and nature. Hence "new beginnings" require the liberation of productive activity, and Nature, from their subsumption under the totalizing logic of capital.
--Chris Arthur, author of THE NEW DIALECTIC AND MARX'S CAPITAL
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Are we really to go back to Engels’s LUDWIG FEUERBACH AND THE END OF CLASSICAL GERMAN PHILOSOPHY of 1886 as ground for today? There, as is well known, Engels made the (in)famous distinction--not to be found in Marx--between Hegel’s “method” and his “system.” This ultimately untenable distinction has plagued Marxists ever since, especially when coupled with Engels’s assertion, in the same paragraph, that Hegel’s “absolute idea” put forward a notion of “the end of history” (MECW 26, pp. 360-61). In this way, Engels anticipated not the creative dialectical investigations of Lenin (after 1914), Lukács, Lefebvre, Marcuse, and Dunayevskaya during the 20th century, but the banal utterances of Fukuyama, who (mis)appropriated the work of the great revolutionary philosopher, Hegel, for his own neo-liberal ends. Another problem with Engels on dialectics is the notion that all of philosophy can be divided into two “great camps,” that of “idealism” (conservative) and that of “materialism” (progressive). In this scheme, Socrates and Plato, the founders of the dialectic, are conservative, and the crude materialists Machiavelli and Hobbes progressive.
As to Marx’s rejection of Hegel’s absolutes, Arthur quotes most selectively.
For example, he does not mention Marx’s formulation, “the absolute general law of capitalist accumulation,” this in the discussion in CAPITAL, Vol. I of rising unemployment as an outgrowth of capital accumulation (Fowkes trans., p. 798, emph. added). Nor does he mention Lenin’s view that at the end of the Absolute Idea chapter of the LOGIC, Hegel “stretches a hand to materialism” (COLLECTED WORKS, Vol. 38, p. 234). (Space does not permit a discussion of Dunayevskaya’s attempt to go beyond Lenin on this point.)
I am glad that Arthur acknowledges that in criticizing Dunayevskaya’s “errors,” he misread the German original concerning the final syllogisms of Hegel’s PHILOSOPHY OF MIND (1817-30). This was the last volume of Hegel’s “system,” The ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE PHILOSOPHICAL SCIENCES. Arthur now concedes that Hegel’s final sentence, wherein the idea “engenders and enjoys itself as absolute mind,” was added only in 1830, as Dunayevskaya maintained. But Arthur still fails to see how this sentence could be connected to new beginnings for human emancipation. Of course, if we adhere to the Engelsian framework, Hegel must be doing something reactionary here, since this is the end of his “system.” No matter that Marcuse (1955) and Dunayevskaya (1953) thought otherwise, and used this passage to work out an emancipatory dialectic in anticipation of the 1960s.
Be that as it may, Arthur needs above all to consider this. Marx’s core dialectical category, “negation of the negation,” the one that he singles out in both the 1844 Essays and Capital, is but another way of saying “absolute negativity.” For as Hegel writes in the SCIENCE OF LOGIC: “But in all this care must be taken to distinguish between the first negation as negation in general, and the second negation, the negation of the negation: the latter is concrete, absolute negativity, just as the former on the contrary is only abstract negativity” (Miller trans. pp. 115-6). If this passage is an expression of Hegel’s “method,” as against his “system,” then why does it include the absolute at its very core?
Arthur now seems to regard his differences with Dunayevskaya as ones over interpretation, rather than her supposedly error-ridden Hegel scholarship. Nonetheless, it is too bad that Arthur, who has written some fine critiques of Engels on CAPITAL, would still attach himself to Engels on dialectics.
--Kevin Anderson, co-editor of THE POWER OF NEGATIVITY and author of LENIN, HEGEL, AND WESTERN
Published by News and Letters Committees