Notes on Dialectics



Notes on Dialectics, probably the key work in the development of C.L.R.. James’s thinking, was written in 1948, and though its influence has been deeply felt through privately circulated mimeographed editions, this is its first publication in book form, with a new introduction by the author.

James aims at making Hegel’s Logic – a thorough study of which Lenin saw as essential for understanding Marx’s Capital – ‘a part of our marxist thinking today’. Close textual and explanatory reference to the Science of Logic itself, and to Marx’s and Lenin’s use of ‘dialectic’, provide a conceptual framework for examining the history of the workers’ movement and the Internationals; and James concludes that Trotsky’s marxism, that of the Fourth International, was inadequate for the post-war world.

This book’s central and prophetic concerns – the revolutionary nature of the proletariat, the state and the party – are just as important in the present world crisis as they were when it was first written.

‘C.L.R.. James is one of those rare individuals whom history proves right. It is more than a misjudgement to think of him as a black professor, as a black historian, or indeed as the premier intellectual product of the West Indies. To think of him as such is to circumscribe and to limit the achievements of one of the marxist thinkers of our time who has kept the thread of the marxist science weaving through the internationalist concerns of a lifetime’ – Race Today

‘One of this century’s most genuine Socialists’ – Labour Weekly


The identity of opposites (it would be more correct to say their “unity”—although the difference between the terms identity and unity is not particularly important here. In a certain sense both are correct) is the recognition (discovery) of the contradictory, mutually exclusive, opposite tendencies in all phenomena and processes of nature (including mind and society). The condition for the knowledge of all processes of the world in their “self-movement”, in their spontaneous development, in their real life, is the knowledge of them as a unity of opposites. The two basic (or two possible? or two historically observable?) conceptions of development (evolution) are: development as decrease and increase, as repetition, and development as a unity of opposites (the division of a unity into mutually exclusive opposites and their reciprocal relation).

The above is a reproduction of a paragraph from Lenin’s 1915 article On the Question of Dialectics, which I had been familiar with for nearly fifteen years. We* had broken with Trotsky’s analysis of the nature of the Russian state since the death of Lenin and I had at my disposal translations by one collaborator of all that Lenin had written on Capital, on philosophy and on the Russian state; and in translations by another collaborator all of Hegel and Marx in German on philosophy and political economy. Marx had not been able to write the small treatise that he had intended on the Hegelian dialectic. We came to the conclusion that a fundamental investigation still remained to be done, on Hegel’s Science of Logic (with that of course had to be associated the smaller Logic, a section of Hegel’s Encyclopedia).

In the midst of his studies on the Logic Lenin had come to the conclusion that you could not understand Capital without an understanding of the Hegelian Logic and had stated semi-humorously:

Aphorism: It is impossible completely to understand Marx‘s Capital, and especially its first chapter, without having thoroughly studied and understood the whole of Hegel’s Logic. Consequently, half a century later none of the marxists understood Marx.

This he enclosed in a box, and we presume a conscientiously humorous modification of the stern judgement by the two exclamation marks with which he ended the aphorism.

For many years my friends and I were very conscious that Lenin in the hectic months of September to December 1914 wrote on The Science of Logic what ultimately filled a hundred and fifty-six printed pages of his Collected Works. My friends and I sought in vain for any treatment of the Logic which went further than a presumed summary of its relation to Marx’s method in general. (That is not altogether surprising, because the two volumes of the larger and the volume of the smaller constitute over a thousand of the most difficult pages we have yet met anywhere.) I was able to find a way into it and even to speculate, i.e. draw temporary conclusions from it, because I recognized from early on that the Logic constituted an algebra, made to be used in any analysis of constitution and development in nature or in society. To hand was the knowledge of the history of the labour movement beginning in 1789 and continuing to our day. For us active marxists that analysis centred on three names: Marx (and Engels), Lenin, and Trotsky. So that when we worked on the Logic we were able to understand its movement by testing this movement against the history of the labour movement and, conversely, the movement of the Logic enabled us to understand and develop for contemporary and future needs the history of the labour movement.

It would be idle to attempt to summarize this process in any introductory statement. This volume is summary enough. A few things, however, can be usefully said. Early in the Logic Hegel lays it down: “In my view—a view which developed exposition of the system can alone justify—everything depends on grasping and expressing the ultimate truth not as Substance but as Subject as well.” It is absolutely true, as Hegel warns, that only the developed exposition of the system can justify what everything depends on. Nevertheless with the ultimate truth not only as Substance (objective reality) but as Subject (Mind) we can tackle empirically that formidable paragraph with which we began. It is obvious that there we are dealing with the spontaneous development of processes in real life, obvious also that any stage of these processes is a unity, consisting of opposites which are mutually exclusive but though unified are yet historically observable.

The next stage in the development (evolution) consists in the gathering strength of one of the opposites so that it overcomes the other, embraces it, and itself becomes the basis of a new stage in the Substance, in which the Subject, equally developing, is able to distinguish the new unity of further opposites.

What matters, events, things, personalities are historically observable? If we are analysing society we will note certain mass impulses, instinctive actions, spontaneous movements, the emergence of personalities, the incalculable activities which constitute a society. At a certain stage these apparently indeterminate activities coalesce into a hard knot “which are foci of arrest and direction in mental life and consciousness”. That knot constitutes the basis of new Substance. When the elements harden into a knot, Mind, Subject, can enter. Mind will observe, said Hegel, that the knot consists of two antagonistic elements locked together in a unity. But it cannot remain as such. In a new historical period there are further impulses, instinctive actions, spontaneous movements, the emergence of personalities, calculable activities whereupon another knot is formed giving the basis to Subject, Mind, opportunity for further analysis. It is along these lines we can examine the First International. This knot consists essentially of mobilization of the mass, and intellectual clarification by those who through ability, energy and aims constitute the leadership. Marx himself (Mind) lays down the principles and supervises the organization.

After another historical period of indeterminate activities we arrive at the Second International, which distinguished itself from the First International by the organization and power of the leadership, in trade unions and labour parties. The leadership moves away from its marxist origin and concentrates on itself. “The movement”, said Bernstein, “is everything.”

After another historical period Lenin organizes the Third International, in form another leadership organization opposed to the leadership of the Second International. After a period both these organizations decay into opportunist groups with neither historical nor organizational perspective, in particular Eurocommunism. It is obvious that what the three Internationals in their turn were seeking is now wide open and more than ever needed.

Hegel insists that the importance of dialectic is the capacity to speculate into the future. What does the Logic tell us about Subject, except (as we have already stated) that Subject is to be analysed as strenuously as Substance? Here there is room for only one indication of method. The two elements of a stage of Substance must be examined as two independent unities. Hegel first labels them unities of Imagination. The dialectic further analyses the parts as being reflected into one another, still part of a unity but one part reflected into another. We understand the word reflected when we face the third method of analysing the opposites. This entails a recognition that the two parts of the unity are in violent opposition, contradiction, to each other. It is when Subject realizes that “Contradiction” is a fundamental principle of all life, that it jams the opposites together and so unlooses (in speculative thought) inherent movement. The idea, thus logically divined, is the Ideality of the next stage of reality.

Where is the Logic taking us? The end, Hegel insists, is the beginning, although you can understand that beginning only when you approach the end. What is then the beginning of the labour movement? We find the historical beginning in the French revolution as Marx saw it. Here are some of his statements about the revolution. The masses went “as far as the suppression of private property, to the maximum of confiscation”. Furthermore they placed themselves “in violent contradiction with the very conditions of existence of bourgeois society (by) declaring the revolution permanent”. Its ultimate aim is self-mobilization. The opposite which at every stage the labour movement meets and must overcome is the developing capitalist society. Stage by stage the new expresses itself instinctively in Substance to be organized intellectually by Subject, Mind. Ultimately the new developing reality faces an opposition with which it must engage in mortal struggle. This stage the Logic describes as Actuality. In the self-mobilization that the Labour movement has been seeking, its ultimate obstacle (perpetuated under Brezhnev) turns out to be the Russian regime and the communist parties. It is the last opposition to be overcome. Stalinism is not an accident. To quote Hegel:

In the course of its process the idea creates the illusion, by setting an antithesis to confront it; and its action consists in getting rid of the illusion which it has created. Only out of this error does the truth arise. In this fact lies the reconciliation with error and with finitude. Error or other-being, when superseded, is still a necessary dynamic element of truth: for truth can only be where it makes itself its own result.

Truth can only be where it makes itself its own result. Truth, in our analysis, the total emancipation of labour, can only be achieved when it contains and overcomes its complete penetration by its inherent antagonism, the capital relation.

At this stage of Actuality in the labour movement I come inevitably to the conclusion that there was no further place in the labour movement for the party. The party as such had to be negated. The one-party state is the incorporation into bourgeois, capitalist society of the nearly two-hundred-year-old efforts by the labour movement to create a party to take over the state. Instead the state takes over the party. In 1946 for example in Italy the party consisted of two and a half million members and was in complete control of the organized labour movement. If the revolution had continued, the two and a half million would rapidly have become at least six or seven million, and a party which consists of six or seven million members is not a party at all. It automatically becomes the state: the state has withered away into the party. Unless the labour movement arrives at the abolition of the party, the state will never wither away.

There is only one warning to be borne in mind. Hegel warns us that the logical development and transition of subject, Mind, does not always find its reality in Substance. I therefore, having arrived at a perspective for the future, embarked upon what I call the “historical tendency” and traced historically the labour movement and its party from 1789 to the present day and its future perspective. What is astonishing is not how little Subject is reproduced in reality, but the miracle in which mutually exclusive opposite tendencies in their self—movement and development, in their unity of opposites, embodied historical reality.