Karl Marx’s project is best encapsulated in one phrase of his: “So far philosophers have interpreted the world in various ways– but the point is to change it.” This emphasis on changing the world stems from his engagement with the dialectical logic of the philosopher Hegel, whose “interpretations” of the world held the most weight during Marx’s time. For those interested in a very cogent yet brief explanation of Hegel’s logic, Marx’s critique of it, and why it matters, I suggest the book Dialectical Materialism, written by the French Marxist Henri Lefebvre in 1939. In this note, I summarize some of the basic insights of this book and evaluate them from an Adornian perspective.
Hegel’s dialectic proceeds as a formal system. It’s central tenet is that contradictions can can be overcome, harbor within themselves their own resolutions. The work of the Mind is to discover how conflicting opposites relate to each other, how they are dependent on each other in the extreme; and then to pass over (canceling while sustaining, transcending while preserving) to a higher moment of Mind, to a “Third Term,” in which the opposites prove at one. The simple characterization goes like this: there is the thesis (position), there is the anti-thesis (negation), and there is then the synthesis (negation of the negation). For example, Being stands for the position of existence, and Nothingness stands for the negation of this position. But under the third term of “Becoming,” both the initial position and the negation are “negated and upheld” all at once. Being passes necessarily through its own nothingness, and nothingness is experienced to the point where nothingness “is”; Becoming is this process of Being passing through Nothingness, and vice versa. Neither are simply negated; what is involved is what Hegel calls a “determinate negation,” in which a new positive content and a higher concept– Becoming– results from this negative, yet creative, movement. Indeed, there is nothing but this passage: any attempt to hypostasize Being or Nothingness fails to see that, in this contradiction, there is nothing but “fruitful tension.” In this sense, both Being and Nothingness become relative moments of a higher passage of Mind.
For Hegel, this type of dialectical operation can be applied to any contradiction the Mind can reach; and it can be resolved. “The real is rational, the rational is real.” Objective content and abstract moments alike are relative to a movement of synthesis in the Mind.
Thus, Hegel’s dialectical logic is both a method of analysis and a recreation of the movement of the real itself, insofar as we find resolutions immanent to the real upon applying reason to it. But in this application, every content is consumed by this negativity of Mind, eaten up by the Idealist movement of Absolute Knowledge. Resolutions are produced in the abstract, but not in the real, due the over-confidence in the real to contain its rational resolution in itself. This over-confidence is tied to an over-confidence in the reasoning subject itself, which by negating every content ends up only producing its own Ideal movement. It triumphs over its objects, finding only a place for itself. Nothing seems to remain but the philosopher basking in his Knowledge of the negativity of things.
Marx’s injunction to change the world, and not just interpret it, revolves around this critical question: in the movement of Mind, what happens to the real content? In Hegel’s dialectic, everything from Terror to Religion, from Law to the State, have their moment. In its zeal to find a “spot” for everything, Mind appears to approve of everything, for everything is but a part of its movement of Knowing. But while it thinks it is appropriating real contents as moments in its movement toward Knowledge, it is rather that the Mind’s movement toward Knowledge is the “secret source” of the “real contents” it thought it was appropriating, and thus its contents weren’t exactly real. By aiming to return all its reflections to the subject, the object it reflects amounts to nothing more than its own reflection; it is imaginary, Idealist.
For Marx, the “content” of philosophical inquiry cannot just be a product of that inquiry. Its object must be real. Thought must not impose its form on the content it finds, because this results in the construction of a false content. Rather, thought must analyse the conflicts and contradictions it finds in the real content, and solutions are to be found in accordance, not with the Mind’s movement, but with the movement of the content thought reflects. Mental forms must fit the imperative of the real content, not content the imperative of mental form. And we must not convince ourselves that everything will find its “right place,” that all contradictions will be resolved in the end in Absolute Knowing. An irrational historical content comes to the fore without preformed prospects of resolution.
Thus Marx looks to the forces of production– not only the production of material goods, but the production of consciousness itself, writing, “It is not consciousness that defines social-being, but our social-being that defines our consciousness.” Consciousness, no ephemeral force of Mind, is a product of the relations between men, the sum of forces of production. Thought is inseparable from the social context that makes it possible, and only by taking this context as its true content can thought effectively arise and take shape.
In Hegel’s elevation of consciousness as the limit-point of human reality, Marx sees an expression of the division of mental and physical labor, the primordial engine of society’s creation. The fact that Hegel could devise a system so encompassing of society as to see in all its “exterior realities” (Law, Religion, etc.) mere moments of the Mind attests to the depth of this division. While Hegel ostensibly sought to emancipate the isolated individual by bringing him into the movements of Absolute Knowledge, his system effectively attests to the alienated status of modern man. He elides the “actual concrete content” of the social totality. Lefebvre’s translates Marx’s passion:
Materialism seeks to give thought back its active force, the one which it had before consciousness became separated from work, when it was still linked directly with practice.
We have got to achieve a new stage of civilization and culture and enable man to realize his potentialities by altering the conditions of his existence.
The meaning of life lies in the full development of human possibilities, which are constricted and paralyzed not by nature but by the contradictory, class nature of social relations.
The criticism that Marx has for Hegel stems from the fact that abstraction (consciousness) masks actual relations between men (social being); not only the brutality that class divisions breed in society, but the way that this brutality itself is masked. It is present in the language of Idealism. Marxist analysis begins with the abstract and “conscious” aspects of current society in terms of how they mask the concrete and “social” aspects of the current state of production, thus analyzing the relations that define knowledge and make thinking possible in the first place.
One of Marx’s most radical assertions is that “money” is a fetishization of the whole of the processes of production. When we consume something, it is not so much that thing that we are consuming; what is magical about a commodity is that it embodies the whole of production. In a sense, we consume the totality of the relations of production in every commodity consumed. We do not attend to this, but this only attests to the extent of the mask. Yet Lefebvre writes, “The living individual is the prisoner of outside forces, but these are his forces, his objective content.” Part of Marxism is about liberating ourselves from the “magic” of commodities, for it sees in all commodities a fetishization; but it also implies attending to this social whole through the fetish, it being our objective content.
Ever returning to the actual content, thought escapes its own idealizing trap. Analysis attends to the relations between objects, the objective relations between us– rather than reifying, without reflection, the abstractions that mask them. But where Lefebvre insists with Marx on transitioning to actual change, for Adorno, reflection on objects and their relations, the mediation of the object through the subject, already modifies them. He reminds us of the need to address others as subjects, not objects; for while objective realities pass through the subject they constitute, the subject is by no means reducible to them. To reduce the subject to an object is to deny its capacity for reflection on its objects, its capacity to change them. The subject becomes a prisoner of its objects when it is denied, by whatever conscious or unconscious means, the possibility of reflecting on its objects as objects– as its content.
Reflecting itself into the object qua object, without taking the object as a mere reflection of the subject, it leaves the object to itself in its distance and unfamiliarity, reflecting it. Its object is not thought itself, but only what is thought in thinking it. Which is why the subject never finds its place there– which is why it’s not being.
For Lefebvre, the purpose of dialectical analysis is the actualization of a total humanity (for the one and for the many), where the relations between men become more transparent, as they confess their mutual material need of objects, but not relating to one another as objects. Doing so restores possibility to the other, lets other subjective possibilities emerge. Lefebvre envisions a society in which labor (manual or mental) no longer refers to goals separate from our own “spontaneous reason.” But perhaps this “spontaneity” even suggests our freedom from objective aims altogether. In any case, it does not suggest the subject’s freedom from the object, nor its transcendence, but that the subject’s freedom is always mediated by the object, which is why the analysis is interminable.
The unity of thought and being, of theory and praxis, cannot be reduced to an ideal unity, but only discovered in the spiraling movement of reflection. It must be formed– and take form– in the dense interplay between subject and object. Without drawing every object into the subject’s ambit, but also without letting the subject be absorbed by its objects. The mind escapes its prison by analyzing the stones constructing it, altering them in the reflection and thus altering the construction. But without construction even that construction is a prison. If for Hegel the Idea leads us to infinite rest, waiting for us to become cognizant of “everything in its right place”– as Lefebvre suggests– for Marx the Idea is the agitation of the social in its movement: reason at work transforming the irrational.