Dialectic ... and also, a new journal

Chris Matthew Sciabarra cms10 at SPAMis2.nyu.edu
Sat Aug 28 12:37:29 MDT 1999

Rather than answer each of the posts individually, I've combined my answers
into a single email, so as not to clutter the list.  Just a few points
here, and an announcement and call for papers as well:

1.  I very much enjoyed reading both Paul Flewers' post on recent history
and Lou Proyect's post as regards the connections between Marxist and
liberal theories of history.  It should also be pointed out that Marx could
turn with regularity to many liberals who founded quite extensive theories
of class -- Charles Dunoyer, Charles Comte, and others who had provocative
notions of class struggle fully within the liberal tradition.

2.  Charles Brown asks:  "And what is Hayek and the Austrians' take on the
class struggle ? What is the special quality of the price mechanism ? Why
can't it be replaced by computers ? This is twenty questions. CB"
        Complicated questions but I'll try my best as briefly as I can.  The most
developed class struggle theory in the Austrian tradition comes from Murray
Rothbard, who, ironically, was comrades with Bertell Ollman in the 1960's
in the Peace and Freedom Party.  Rothbard argues -- much like Poulantzas
and Althusser -- that the state is crucial to the formation of classes, and
that it is politics that drives that formation.  Surely, there is an
internal relationship between economics and politics.  But Rothbard argues
that without the state, such things as business cycles and monopolies are
impossible.  The banking sector's incestuous relationship with the state
has been present in capitalism since the beginning, and over time, it has
led to a concentration of "ultimate decision-making" in the financial nexus
(recall Hilferding').  And monopolies, without government blocking market
entry, cannot survive.  (This thesis was first propounded by Gabriel Kolko,
the New Left revisionist historian who argued that the 19th century trend
was toward rivalrous competition, increasing relative wages, and declining
relative prices -- and that it was big business that began the move toward
corporate statism as a means of destroying competition.)

        The difference between the libertarian and New Leftist critique however is
this:  libertarians argue that the price mechanism is crucial in meeting
relative scarcities.  Briefly, Hayek saw prices as a means of transmitting
knowledge of specific relative scarcities as they relate to a PARTICULAR
context of time and place.  Much of that contextual knowledge is
"inarticulate" -- that is, it is non-quantifiable.  Creative use of
resources and entrepreneurial "know-how" always includes this "tacit"
component that can never be captured by computers.  Production is not
simply inputs-and-outputs, then.  And no matter how hard we try to
duplicate that process in computers, it will always, by its nature, leave
out of the equation the entrepreneurial component.  So the price mechanism
becomes essential to economic planning in an advanced economic system, in
which knowledge of particular time and place is more and more
decentralized, while being more and more interconnected globally.  This is
true, say the Austrians, whether property is owned privately, or
collectively -- as in worker cooperatives. (Which means that, in principle,
Austrians would not object to worker cooperatives, as long as they were
framed by market transactions, rather than by political centralization.)

3.  Doyle writes:
"The Socratic dialogue is a report by Plato about the method Socrates used in
teaching philosophy. Where dialectic means argument in the context of
exchanges of conversation. Or at least that is what it seems to me. Plato
was not a realist. The dialogue that arises in this Platonic case is not
like the give and take of these times (1999). And Carrol's point in many
ways relates to this departure point. Libertarian views certainly find a
root in Plato. In ideas, in a de-structured system of "freedom". In a
search through consciousness these days for the freedom that is not
encompassed by the state."

        Very good points about Plato and Socrates.  Let me expand, however, on the
notion of dialectic as it developed.  While it emerged as a tool for
teaching philosophy, it actually is rooted in the argumentative arts.  The
word "dialectic" comes from "dialegesthai" which means "to discuss" or "to
pick out," and it is cognate with "dialogos" or dialogue.  Hence, it was
not merely a tool for teaching philosophy.  It was also a tool for learning
and investigation.  The inherent problem (among many) of the Platonic
dialectic is exactly that it was connected to Plato's idealism.  The
movement away from idealism toward realism began with Aristotle, who is
actually considered the father of dialectics.  He is the first philosopher
to systematize the rules of dialectic as they apply to argumentation (see
his textbook on dialectic, THE TOPICS), and he disconnected that art from
Plato's ontology.  It is no wonder that Hegel saw him as the "fountainhead"
of dialectics, and that Marx praised him as the greatest philosopher of
antiquity.  (For a really nice discussion of Marx's roots in Aristotle, see

        The whole thrust of Aristotle's dialectic was its requirement that
individuals look at any object of inquiry from different "points of view."
These shifting vantage points on an object enable us to come up with a more
full-bodied understanding of its reality.  As it was first applied to
argumentation, Aristotle's approach would have a huge impact on the
Medieval Scholastics, who systematized these rules even further.  But it
would also have a profound effect on Marx, the Austrian economics founder
Carl Menger, and many others, who understood that, just as an argument is a
structured totality, needing understanding on many levels of generality, so
too is a social system a structured totality, needing understanding - and
explanation - from many vantage points, on many levels of generality.
Abstracting the units of our analysis and integrating these over time,
helps us to build an enriched understanding of that social system, as
constituted historically and structurally.

4.  Doyle also asks:  "The level of discussion that Chris brings is about
libertarianism. Does
that fundamentally clash with Marxism? Chris finds the dialectic most
interesting from Marxism. But what is the dialectic but a philosophical
metaphor for the exchange process. And more importantly, is not the
exchange process about the means of producing it. So that when people talk
in the town center as did the Greeks, is there not something qualitatively
different in the electronic process of exchange. That is a structured state
sponsored system quite unlike anything that removing the state from social
intercourse could achieve. Or seems to me."

        Another excellent point, in my view.  I think the dialectic and the
exchange process are very much related.  Yet, while we cannot forget the
different characteristics of that exchange depending on the context within
which it takes place, we must also remember that there are still properties
essential to any exchange.  On these issues, by the way, the Austrians have
done some very interesting work -- if you see the work of Don Lavoie, Steve
Horwitz, Pete Boettke, and so many others, you'll see how they explicitly
integrate an understanding of dialectic (especially concepts from Gadamer's
hermeneutics) into their own explanation of the market exchange process.
Too much to get into here, in a brief email, but maybe over time.

        As for the compatibility of Marxism and libertarianism... I think they are
not compatible ultimately.  But I do think that a more "dialectical"
version of each might have some really fascinating consequences in the
long-run that affect the character of each, and the possibilities for

5.  George Pennefather answers the following:  "If anybody has questions
for Chris Sciabarra on Ayn Rand, dialectical libertarianism, etc., you can
ask him directly through the list since I just added him on his request."
He states: "Yes I have. What is there about Ayn Rand to suggest she is
worth reading. I know little about her writings --why all the fuss.  Warm
regards, George Pennefather"

I hesitate to get into a big discussion of Rand on a Marxism list, but my
view is that Rand is a highly dialectical thinker, who learned this method
of thinking from her Russian teachers, and who forged a radical critique of
the contemporary neofascist political economy.  I think she is a much more
full-bodied thinker than either her fans or her critics realize, and that
radicals can learn from her.

Apropos, a little announcement here... I am one of the editors of a new
journal that makes its debut in September 1999:  THE JOURNAL OF AYN RAND
STUDIES.  Since a number of individuals here have expressed some grave
misgivings about Rand, I wanted to say that this journal is going to be a
place where people working in vastly different traditions meet to discuss
Rand's corpus.  I am extending an open invitation to my Marxist colleagues
to visit the website for the journal and to consider submitting scholarly
papers that use a Marxist framework to critique Rand.  If the submission is
appropriate and passes the usual peer review process for academic journals,
I will gladly publish it.  You can find out more about this journal by
pointing your browser to:

Cheers to all...
Chris Matthew Sciabarra, Visiting Scholar
NYU Department of Politics
715 Broadway
New York, New York  10003-6806
Dialectics and Liberty Website:
All NEW Essays and Publications:
Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand:
The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies Website:

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