Internal Relations/Dialectics

Peter McLaren mclaren at
Thu Sep 4 10:17:14 MDT 2003

Jurriaan wrote:
The problem here really is that nobody has been uncontroversially able to
specify the meaning of "the dialectical method" and indeed I've met people
who think it's just a method used by jerks to get off. More seriously,
proponents of "the dialectical method" assume that there is one method which
can be generally applied in scientific inquiry, social analysis or political
activity. This has nothing in common with Marx, who believed that a method
must be appropriate for the subject to which it is applied. Therefore there
is no such thing as "the dialectical method", only methods which involve
dialectical procedures. But as far as Marx is concerned, it's really a
question of discovering the dialectics in the subject itself, and this can
only be accomplished through a critical inquiry and empirical investigation.

I agree with Jurriaan's comments. I have included a couple of paragraphs
from an article I wrote with two comrades in England (Paula Allman and Glenn
Rikowski) that is in press. It might help clarify some aspects of
dialectics/critique. I recommend the work of Bertell Ollman for further

Marx's Critical Concept of Class
To say that class is the major irony or contradiction of the human condition
as we enter the third millennium is putting it far too mildly-- tragedy 2000
would be much more apropos. Today, class is the major factor of social
division throughout the globe, as Marx so presciently predicted it would be.
It is therefore ironic that many socialists and others who remain desirous
of social transformation are swarming toward various new, as well as more
traditional, social movements in the desperate attempt to find a radical
force capable of replacing the class movement as the agent of social change.
Others have refocused their attention on the so-called Third World, not
through any laudable or critical reasoning but because they think that this
is the only location in which the "true" working class can still be found in
any abundance. And of course the greatest tragedy of all is that many others
have forfeited their hope--often their desire even-- for social
It is a constant source of amazement and frustration to us that so many
socialists, and here we are thinking particularly of those who profess to be
Marxists, totally ignore what we consider to be the most essential component
of Marx's class analysis--his dialectical concept, or conceptualisation, of
class. We have also grown weary of the perpetual battery of excuses: for
example, those that blame history or specific political conditions
pertaining at specific historical conjunctures, and especially those that
blame Marx for his lack of clarity. No one would deny that there are bits of
Marx¹s oeuvre that are difficult, but his concept of class is not one of
these. However, since it appears to be widely misunderstood or ignored and
also because it is absolutely fundamental to all sorts of
political--including educational--struggles, it is important to discuss this
concept. It must be kept in focus as we discuss other aspects of our
collective strategies for global social transformation.
As Ollman (1976) argues, any analysis of Marx¹s thought should begin with
recognition of his concept, or as Ollman calls it, his philosophy, of
internal relations. The concept of internal relations is the key that
unlocks the purported difficulty of Marx¹s thought. This philosophy, or
concept, pertains to a particular form of relational thinking. Although
academia is still replete with examples of categorical thinking and
analysis, a great deal of intellectual endeavour involves relational
thinking and analysis. However, there are two distinct types of relational
thinking and they are paradigmatically as far removed from one another as
relational thought is from categorical thinking. Tolman (1981) stresses that
all of these modes or paradigms of thinking are necessary for the
elucidation of social relations and phenomena. However, as people become
increasingly immersed in a particular field of study, they are frequently
driven to deepen their understanding by shifting to a more sophisticated or
complex mode of thinking about the topic or phenomenon they are studying. In
other words, each of these ways of conceptualising the subject is valid and
serves a function, but at the same time will eventually prove inadequate to
a full understanding or intellectual penetration of the phenomenon one is
seeking to understand. Once people saturate their ability to comprehend a
field of study in terms of categorical thinking, they recognise that the
phenomenon they are studying does not exist in isolation but rather in
interaction with various other entities. Therefore, they begin to focus
their attention on the result, or results, of these interactions. These
results--whether we think of the outbreak of war or the formation of a
chemical compound-- are normally a synthesis of the interacting phenomena, a
result of the bringing together of some number of the attributes internal to
each phenomenon or situation. To analyse events or phenomena in this way is
to think of them in terms of their external relations. Two or more entities
might come together and interact, but the change that occurs is external to
the entities. It is a result that has a separate and independent existence
from the original entities once it has come into existence. Just as when a
male and a female of some species produce an offspring that continues to
exist even when the parents do not.
Clearly, thinking in terms of external relations adds greater complexity to
our understanding and is absolutely essential to the advancement of the
human intellect. Indeed, in the understanding of certain phenomenon and
events it may offer a completely adequate level of comprehension. However,
this is not always the case and Marx certainly found that although helpful
it was far from sufficient when it came to understanding the material
reality of capitalism. This is why he employed a different form of
relational thinking in a great deal of his analysis.
We doubt very seriously if Marx was fully aware that his analysis implied
this paradigm shift. In fact, he argued that his dialectical "method" was
dictated not by some a priori method of thought but by the actual--the
material--reality of capitalism, itself. Therefore, if Marx explains
capitalism in terms of internal relations--the type of relations that are
central to his dialectical conceptualisation of capitalism--it is because he
found this type of relation in the real world of capitalism. Of course, this
was not the world of capitalism that we experience daily but the reality of
capitalism that Marx was able to reveal through his penetrating analysis of
the surface phenomena--those that constitute our immediate and illusory
experience--of capitalism. That Marx found capitalism--his subject of
analysis-- to be a system comprised of various internal relations is not all
that unusual. There are many other areas of our material world--that is,
real phenomena or entities--that are also involved in internal relations and
that, as a consequence, can only be fully comprehended when analysed
accordingly. And those people who seek to deepen their understandings of
these phenomena will of necessity be driven, just as Marx was, to adopt a
new, more sophisticated, or complex, way of perceiving them. We are sure
that at least a few will come to mind as you read the following explanation
of internal relations.
When we conceptualise the internally related nature of something, or, to use
Ollman's terminology, when we apply a philosophy of internal relations to
our subject of study, we focus on the relation and how it is responsible for
the past and present existence of the related entities. These entities are
the opposites in the relation. Secondly, we focus simultaneously on the
ongoing internal development within the related entities. We might also find
that the relation leads to the development of a third entity, or something
that appears to be similar to the result of an external relation. However,
there is an important difference. The results of internal relations do not
obtain a separate existence, despite the fact that they often appear to have
done so. If the original entities/opposites cease to exist, which can only
occur if the relation is abolished, then the result also ceases to exist.
Furthermore, once this result of an internal relation is formed it aides and
abets the continuing existence of the internal relation by helping to bind,
or mediate the related opposites, or entities, within the relation. We will
give you the most important example of this as soon as we move on to
explaining Marx's dialectical concept of class--that is, the concept of
class that is derived from grasping class as an internal relation. First,
however, there is a point about terminology--that is the use of, as well as
relation between, concepts-- that we should make.
       We have already suggested a strong connection between dialectical
conceptualisation and thinking in terms of internal relations. Indeed, the
connection is so strong that for many intents and purposes they can be
considered to be synonymous. However, there are distinctions that must be
made. At the heart of dialectical thought--its focus or raison d¹être--is
the dialectical contradiction. A dialectical contradiction should not be
confused with a logical contradiction, even though there is a relation
between them--we hasten to add, however, that this is an external relation.
Logical contradictions have to do with the errors in thought or the
presentation of one¹s thinking and also errors in one¹s behaviour that occur
when one utterance or action does not follow logically from a previously
stated utterance or a previously executed behaviour. Dialectical
contradictions often lead to these contradictory situations, but this is a
matter of their consequences rather than a depiction of their form. All
dialectical contradictions are internal relations--a relation of two
opposite entities/phenomena that could not exist, continue to exist or have
come into existence in the absence of their internal relation to one
another. Both externally and internally the very nature--past, present and
future--of each of the opposites is shaped within its relation to the other
opposite. The opposites could not be what they are or what they are to
become outside of this relation. When this is an antagonistic relation, the
existence of each opposite is variously constrained or hampered by virtue of
the fact that it is in an internal relation with its opposite; however one
of the opposites, despite these limitations, actually benefits from the
relation. It is in the interest of this opposite--often referred to as the
positive--to maintain the relation. The other opposite--the
negative--although it can better its circumstances temporarily within the
relation, is severely limited by its relation to its opposite and sometimes
to the point of devastation; therefore, it is in its interest to abolish the
relation. This abolition is referred to as "the negation of the negation".
The individuals constituting the negative opposites do not cease to exist,
but they do cease to exist as the negative, and inferior, opposite they have
been due to their existence within an internal relation/dialectical
contradiction--hence this is called the "negation of the negation". The
relationship between a dialectical contradiction and an internal relation is
not a mutually exclusive relation. By this we mean that while all
dialectical contradictions are internal relations it does not follow that
all internal relations are dialectical contradictions. Another term that can
be used for a dialectical contradiction--a term that is actually a
descriptive phrase--is a "unity of opposites". We tend to use this term when
we want to emphasise the internally related nature of the dialectical
contradiction. Having dealt with this terminology, we can now move on to
that most important example of an internal relation / dialectical
contradiction / "unity of opposites": the relation between labour and
capital that constitutes the class relation.
According to Marx's analysis of capitalism, the dialectical contradiction
that lies at the heart of capitalism is the relation between labour and
capital. This relation, together with the internal relation between
capitalist production and circulation/exchange, constitutes the essence of
capitalism (Allman, 2001a). The labour-capital relation, however, is our
focus. It is the relation that produces the historically specific from of
capitalist wealth--the value form of wealth. The most accurate and
encapsulating way to describe this relation is to posit it as a relation of
valorisation. To explain fully what is meant by each of these statements, we
must take you on a brief journey through the historical development of
capitalism. This will be a selective tour in that there were several
preconditions that led to the development of capitalism, but we will be
focussing only on those that pertain specifically to Marx¹s dialectical
concept of class.

excerpt from:
Paula Allman, Peter McLaren, and Glenn Rikowski
"After the Box People: The labour-capital relation as class constitution ­
and its consequences for Marxist educational theory and human resistance."
In press in the book:  Yesterday's Dreams: International and Critical
Perspectives  on Education and Social Class. Edited by Alan Scott. New
Zealand: University  of Canterbury  Press

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