Academic journal article Capital & Class

Internal Relations, the Concrete Universal, and Historical Materialism

Academic journal article Capital & Class

Internal Relations, the Concrete Universal, and Historical Materialism

Article excerpt


When is a Marxist a Marxist? And when is a Marxist not a Marxist? Clearly even Marx himself had concerns about what 'Marxism' is construed to be, as is evidenced by his famous comment: 'All I know is that I am not a Marxist.' The issue has become ever more puzzling in the decades since Marx's death. Is there only one Marxism? Or are there two or three Marxisms, or many more? It seems to depend on whom you ask, and who responds.

A book by Alvin Gouldner, The Two Marxisms (1980), went a good way in sorting out the issue. Gouldner's book reflects a tension in the existing literature about Marx concerning two major dimensions of his thought, which seem to conflict with, and even contradict, each other. The 'two Marxisms' that Gouldner speaks of are 'critical Marxism' and 'scientific Marxism'. As characterised by Gouldner, 'critical Marxism' emphasises the continuity with Hegel, as well as the continuity between the early and late Marx. It focuses on 'praxis', alienation, and the new human being. It advocates a voluntaristic attitude toward social action. Moreover, it is antipositivist in tone. According to Gouldner, 'scientific Marxism', in turn, emphasises the discontinuity with Hegel, and holds to a split between the early and late Marx. It focuses on deterministic laws that somehow ensure the inevitability of socialism. It is much more passive in its attitude toward social action; and it has a decidedly positivist character (Gouldner, 1980: 32-63).

For my part, I do not dispute Gouldner's distinction between the 'critical' and 'scientific' dimensions of Marx's thought in his reading of the literature he explored, or that the literature he explored bears witness to an alleged conceptual conflict between the two dimensions of Marx's thought. Moreover, I do not dispute that partisans of each dimension have been pitted against partisans of the other in their respective interpretations of Marx. However, the mere fact that such conflicting partisans allege a conceptual conflict between these two dimensions of Marx's thought does not in itself mean that the alleged conceptual conflict is inherent in Marx's own position. Furthermore, let me suggest that in addition to the two Marxisms Gouldner distinguishes, there is a ready claimant for a third class of Marxisms - namely Marxism as a critical science which embraces the essential philosophical continuity of the early and late Marx, as well as the philosophical harmony of the critical and scientific dimensions. (1)

It could well be that the alleged conflict between the 'critical' and 'scientific' dimensions of Marx's thought can be explained if one or even both sets of partisans have fundamentally misconstrued the canons of interpretation of human reality with which Marx was working, as well as the mature method of explanation toward which he was working from early on. (My adoption of the phrase 'canons of interpretation' is meant to distinguish that which I intend from Kant's 'categories of the understanding' which, for Kant, are the a priori categories that actively structure human experience of the natural world.) The canons to which I refer are the notions of the internal relation and the concrete universal- both of which, I contend, are at play in Marx's early work, as well as in Marx's mature method of explanation, which moves from the abstract to the concrete. (2)

Such canons of interpretation contrast sharply with the very different canons of interpretation that have been dominant in mainstream Western thinking; namely the external relation and the associated notion of the abstract universal. In order to emphasise this contrast, let me draw from Brand Blanshard's work, The Nature of Thought, 2 Vol. (1939). Therein, Blanshard gives extensive and masterful analyses of the deep conceptual connection between the external relation and the abstract universal on the one hand, as well as the internal relation and the concrete universal on the other (Blanshard 1939: vol. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.