Nia Frome

On Dialectics, or How to Defeat Enemies

“You’re tense, I’m calm. You apply excessive force; I control that force through fluid motion. That means relaxing the whole body so it can react instantly without resistance — no, without thought. Do you see now? It means becoming like clear water.” — Spike Spiegel

“We both step and do not step in the same rivers. We are and are not.” — Heraclitus

What’s the difference between a fistfight and an argument? Both exist on a spectrum between dirty and clean. Both have to do with ego, or principle, or some weird mix of the two. Fistfights may end in injury or death for the combatants, so it seems like people should take them more seriously than they do arguments. Of course, this isn’t the case. A fierce disagreement gives the impression of impossibly high stakes. This is why arguments so regularly turn dirty, and sprawl. Unlike a fistfight, which is more or less open and shut, an argument always leaves unresolved questions. To really win an argument, then, it’s not enough just to remain standing longer than your opponent.

The only way to decisively defeat an argument is to let its own inner tendencies defeat it. A comprehensive refutation requires that each and every attack be shown to ultimately redound to the attacker’s detriment. Once an idea’s come up against its own limits, been hoisted by its own petard, that’s a blow it can’t recover from, one that’s stamped on its face forever. Public exposure of its inherent shortcomings guarantees it can’t recover from the defeat to resume its former role — the flaws that caused its downfall will only bring it to ruin over and over again, confirming the original judgment.

This technique is known as immanent critique. My claim is that immanent critique and the dialectical method are one and the same. Both are based on letting [lassen] the object of study testify on its own behalf just long enough to indict itself and transform into its putative other. The calm poise with which the dialectician squares off against any given adversary derives from her faith in “the universal irony of the world,” the certainty that no attack is entirely one with itself. The dialectical approach, in general, is to meet hard with soft, to be presuppositionless, like clear water, and to let reality (the force of an attack) be its own undoing.

What are the alternatives to a dialectical approach? One would be to take no heed of the opponent whatsoever. A person can present what they’re saying as the last and ultimate word by simply ignoring the world of counterarguments. The “New Atheists,” for example, are famous for ignoring the theological canon, preferring to spar with practice dummies. Another more manly tack would be to face the enemy head-on and trade punches until one of you falls down. Most propaganda and counterpropaganda fits this description. But adopting this strategy raises uncomfortable questions: what makes your attacks any different from theirs? With what right can you claim superiority, if your victory was only an accident, a contingency that just as easily could have gone the other way? You may have dodged a few swings, but did you really demonstrate a truer understanding of your opponent? Did you show us what they were really about?

The Hegelian slogan “the actual is rational” denotes a kind of respect for the other. It says that no version of reality can be true which does not account for the false, for its opposition. This puts a strange spin on the false — by turning an opponent’s attack back at them, by integrating their error into a fuller picture of the world, we bring out its inner reason and raise it above mere error. That it thereby becomes both error and not-error, reason and not-reason, is a hallmark of the dialectical approach. Analytical thinkers, who rely on self-identity (A=A) and the presumption of an excluded middle, prize consistency above all else and so cannot bear the presence of contradiction. Dialecticians, on the other hand, aim for completeness, which they knit together by separating attackers from that which separates them from everything else. This implies a very different set of intellectual values than the analytical ones, including, notoriously, a soft spot for contradiction.

I’m departing somewhat from the Marxist tradition here by treating dialectics as a practice/ethic/aesthetic rather than an ontology. In Anti-Dühring, Engels staunchly defends the reality of contradiction. On his view, there are three laws of dialectics: the unity and conflict of opposites, the passage from quantitative change to qualitative change, and the negation of the negation. When Stalin sets out to summarize the Marxist dialectical method, he organizes his summary under four headings: Nature [is] Connected and Determined, Nature is a State of Continuous Motion and Change, Natural Quantitative Change Leads to Qualitative Change, and Contradictions [are] Inherent in Nature. Mao embraces Engels’ first law, the unity of opposites, and declares the rest subordinate or special cases, even going so far as to deny the negation of the negation.

What’s funny is that from a contemporary Western standpoint (that is, one indelibly marked by logical positivism), these kinds of claims seem awfully… metaphysical. Dialectics, which were supposed to finally free us from the prison of metaphysics, instead seem to be playing the part of its most avid guard. It can’t be the case that I have to confess the reality of contradiction in order to be a proper Marxist, can it? Is there perhaps some wiggle room between Marx and Engels here?

The problem with “rescuing” Marx from Engels’ “vulgar misappropriation” is that it leaves us with a thoroughly modern Marx who seems to excel at knowing his place, staying in his lane, and not overstepping any disciplinary bounds. This extreme makeover deprives us of the brash Promethean revolutionary who got himself kicked out of almost every country he ever lived in and knew no greater happiness than “to fight.” It also demotes every member of the Marxist tradition after Marx to the rank of (more or less adept) impersonator. Insulating the great thinker Marx from metaphysical contamination isn’t actually an intervention on the terrain of metaphysics, where reactionaries will continue to make hay peddling their eternal truths. This is why so many Marxists have found it necessary to identify an ontological correlate to the dialectical method.

A dialectical ontology is nothing but a generalization from the repeated practical experience of immanent critique. Whoever would claim for themselves a privileged position above and beyond such critique must assert that their attacks can’t be redirected, that they are absolutely true on their own merits, rock-solid singularities. Engels’ first law says that no such self-identical monads exist. His second law says that, despite any appearance to the contrary, whatever being or trend that may seem fixed and immutable is in reality already betraying itself. Even the simple addition of days isn’t a merely quantitative change, although a dialectical stillness (“listening and waiting for the right moment to strike”) is required to perceive its qualitative aspect. Engels’ third law asserts that novelty and development in general mimic the structure of immanent critique. There is a homology between our best procedure for coming to know the world and its own process of coming to be. Indeed, it would be surprising if this weren’t the case, as it would imply that the world wasn’t necessarily, but only accidentally, intelligible.

Stalin’s four headings are saying basically the same thing. “Connection” is another name for non-transcendence, the idea that the kudzu of dialectics grows everywhere, that nothing is out of bounds. If anything in nature stood apart or defied the myriad overlapping determinations that govern the world we know, then it would constitute an irresistible blow, as God was once supposed to. If anything remained constant in time, it would be unanswerable, absolute, self-contained and self-sufficient. Stalin is confident in asserting that no such thing exists because, although there’s no end to those who boast of having discovered an unbeatable attack, in practice this always turns out to be nothing but talk. Like Engels, he insists on the existence of real contradictions in nature due to a lifetime of practical experience exploiting and being thrown by these very contradictions. The core dialectical principle is that nothing is exempt from being turned against itself because everything has already, at some level, started to turn.

It’s weighing on my mind that so far I’ve neglected the distinction between idealism and materialism. You must know the metaphors: with Hegel, the dialectic is standing on its head, but Marx stands it on its feet, or removes the mystical shell to reveal the rational kernel beneath, etc. Much has been made of these few lines. Rather than engage with a dizzying body of literature, I’ll just point out the obvious: dialectics are something both idealists and materialists can do. Marx sees both continuity and discontinuity between himself and Hegel. He takes the trouble to unambiguously emphasize both. If we hadn’t been so thoroughly steeped in it by now, we might miss that the way Marx views his relationship with Hegel just is the dialectical maneuver as I’ve defined it. The conclusive refutation of idealist metaphysics consists in turning it against itself, thus enabling an exit into materialism.

But so how do you guarantee that your dialectical aikido is the good kind (materialist) and not the bad kind (idealist)? Idealist dialecticians are like mathematicians: they’re lazy. Once they’ve identified their foe’s fatal flaw, the weakness that makes a redirection of their attack possible, they consider them effectively vanquished. This means they live in the most blessed of all possible worlds. A materialist dialectician, by contrast, does not consider their foe defeated until they have as a matter of historical fact been defeated. As Marx puts it, “The weapon of criticism cannot, of course, replace criticism by weapons; material force must be overthrown by material force.” Mao is right to detect in this the seed of a materialist critique of the negation of the negation, for isn’t it wishful thinking to believe that capitalism will fall of its own accord, by the obscure laws of its own “inner essence,” and not from being pushed?

As always, the dialectic gets the last laugh, since these are the same thing. The negation of the negation (capitalism’s self-destructive tendencies) is the unity of opposites (capital and its other, labor) is determination by external forces (class struggle between proletariat and bourgeoisie). This equation may strike you as a little too pat. Breaking any leg of it, though, has serious political consequences. If capitalism’s self-destructive tendencies are not baked into the relation between capital and labor, then we can have the latter without the former, and capitalism is salvageable. If the unity of opposites in capitalism is not mutual determination by forces that are in some sense external to each other, then the proletariat stands no chance of ever becoming a class in and for itself. If determination by external forces cannot achieve a novel and qualitatively different outcome of the kind suggested by the negation of the negation, then it is only a long and bloody slog without purpose.

A revolution is not a fistfight or an argument: since quantity turns into quality, sheer size definitely matters. In order to succeed, a revolution must subdue a host of enemies, either through deterrence or by defeating them outright. One way to deter enemies from taking up arms against us is co-optation, that is, bringing the most amenable among them into our own camp. Outright victory requires intimate knowledge of the terrain, the context, and the history of any given struggle. Both approaches demand sensitivity to the objective contradictions within the enemy’s camp as well as our own. Fortunately, a revolution doesn’t have to answer every attack perfectly in order to win. But that doesn’t mean it’s released from the obligation to better understand its attackers than they do themselves. A new mode of production, or a new sovereign power, establishes itself to the extent that it organizes and integrates previously uncoordinated and fractious human activity. Thinking dialectically ensures that our eyes stay fixed on this prize, and that no enemy obstructing our path ever appears invincible.