Simple and Higher Categories of the Dialectic

by Georg Lukács

Of course this interconnection is not in any way a mechanical dependence of both realms of cognition on each other. Since its material foundation is a dialectical process, since the economic structure of society and exchange of matter with nature permanently find themselves in a real dialectical interaction with one another, the objective interconnection is also always a dialectical one. Even within social phenomena these interconnections do not simply form, but are formed in a way that changes in the course of historical development. That is in a way whereby not only the phenomena change their contents— such changes are recognised by bourgeois history‑writing too—but also the structure of the interconnection changes as a result of the changes of real materials. Thus Marx points out repeatedly such an 'unequal development of material production and, e.g. that of art' (A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, MECW 28, p. 46). The following expositions, however, show that art is really only an example, and the same unequal development can emerge between law and production. An insoluble problem ensues only for mechanical bourgeois thought—which has to remain trapped in the fetishistic antinomy of 'eternal iron laws' or 'unique individuality'. In dialectical materialism the structural problem is solved historically (i.e. through pointing out the concrete, real historical genesis of the structure concerned), and the historical problem is solved theoretically (that is through pointing out the obedience to the law that the concrete material under consideration has produced). Therefore Marx stresses the following in relation to the sequence of economic categories: 'their order of succession is determined by their mutual relationship in modern bourgeois society and this is quite the reverse of what appears to be natural to them or in accordance with the sequence of historical development' (MECW 28, p. 44).

However, in no way does the fact that the real objective process is dialectical and that the emergence and linkages of the insights that correctly reflect it are also dialectical mean that all knowledge always appears in the form of knowledge of the dialectical method. The claim of the young Marx: 'Reason has always existed, just not always in reasonable form' is also true of the dialectic. It depends on the economic structure of society and the class position that the perceiver takes up within it whether and how far an objective dialectical interconnection adopts a dialectical form in thought, whether and how much people can become conscious of the dialectical character of the interconnection concerned. Under some circumstances it may not come to light at all in thought, epistemologically. It might appear as an insoluble contradiction, as an antinomy. It might be understood correctly in terms of some of its traits, without it being possible to determine its correct place in the development as a whole, etc. From what has been said so far it is clear that such knowledge can be, despite all that, at least partially, objectively correct. But theoretically correct, dialectical, knowledge can be found only when the historical development of society is so advanced that the real problems that lie at the basis of these contradictions, etc., are solved historically, or advance towards their solution. In other words: the dissolution, the overcoming of dialectical contradiction is produced by reality through real historical processes. Thought can, under particular conditions, pre‑empt such processes mentally; however that is only when this overcoming is present as a real, if practically immature, tendency of development objectively in the real process of history. And if this interconnection has not become fully conscious through the real process of history, if each dialectical problem is not related to its concrete material basis, then that mental pre‑empting must stray into abstraction, into idealism (Hegel).

At this point the most serious objection to my conception of dialectics, raised by Deborin, can be appreciated: my neglect of the simple categories of the dialectic in favour of the higher ones. Deborin says: 'We simply wish to underline the fact that Hegel always considered the process of development in all its moments, that, scaling the peak of the absolute idea, he showed at the same time that the process as a whole forms its content. The forwards movement begins from abstract and simple concepts or categories and advances to the next concepts, which become increasingly richer and more concrete' (Arbeiterliteratur IX, p. 636). As a description of the mode of exposition of Hegel that is—by and large—correct, and it is possible that Hegel as an idealist was often trapped in the illusion that this mode of exposition of the dialectical categories corresponded as much to their objective real interconnections as to the real process of their discernibility. For Marx, to whom Deborin 'by and large' ascribes this point of view (ibid.), it is certainly not the case. Marx was always completely clear about the fact that what is lower (simpler, more abstract) can only be recognised from the higher (more complicated, more concrete). He says: 'The anatomy of man is a key to the anatomy of the ape. On the other hand, rudiments of more advanced forms in the lower species of animals can only be understood when the more advanced forms are already known. Bourgeois economy thus provides a key to the economy of antiquity, etc.' (A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, MECW 28, p. 42). The simple category is then, for Marx, the starting point of the exposition (commodity, labour, money, etc.). His materialist dialectic, his historical materialism, however, saves him from the error of overlooking the historical (under certain circumstances historically delayed, much diverted) character of simple categories. He comments there precisely about labour: 'Labour seems to be a very simple category. The notion of labour in this universal form, as labour in general, is also extremely old. Nevertheless "labour" in this simplicity is economically considered just as modern a category as the relations that give rise to this simple abstraction. . . . The simplest abstraction, which plays a decisive role in modern political economy, an abstraction that expresses an ancient relation existing in all social formations, nevertheless appears to be actually true in this abstract form only as a category of the most modern society' (A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, MECW 28, p. 40). Therefore: 'the method of advancing from the abstract to the concrete is thinking the way in which thinking assimilates the concrete and reproduces it as a concrete mental category. This is, however, by no means the process of the evolution of the concrete world itself' (ibid.). If he identifies the method of Hegel 'by and large' with that of Marx, Deborin succumbs to Hegel's illusion that 'the real world is the result of thinking which causes its own synthesis, its own deepening and its own movement' (ibid.). It would not be too difficult to derive this method from all of Marx's later, concrete explanations; and thereby one could discern that he always refused to conceive the concrete totality as constructed in reality of its simple abstract elements, although he (very correctly!) often used this construction as a mode of exposition. I will cite only one passage about crises:

No crisis can exist unless sale and purchase are separated from one another and come into conflict, or the contradictions contained in money as a means of payment actually come into play; crisis, therefore, cannot exist without manifesting itself at the same time in its simple form, as the contradiction between sale and purchase and the contradiction of money as a means of payment. But these are merely forms, general possibilities of crisis, and hence also forms, abstract forms, of actual crisis. In them, the nature of crisis appears in its simplest forms, and, in so far as this form is itself the simplest content of crisis, in its simplest content. But the content is not yet substantiated. Simple circulation of money and even the circulation of money as a means of payment—and both come into being long before capitalist production, while there are no crises—are possible and actually take place without crises. These forms alone, therefore, do not explain why their crucial aspect becomes prominent and why the potential contradiction contained in them becomes a real contradiction. (Theories of Surplus Value II, p. 512)

It is quite easy to see in all this the interconnection of  'simple' and 'higher' categories in Marx. Higher categories must be produced in reality by the historical process, and they must be correctly recognised in their dialectical interconnections, so that the historical and systematic functions of the simple categories that correspond to them can be recognised. To imagine the process the other way round is an idealist illusion and leads—if carried to a logical conclusion—to an apologia for what exists, whereby the simple category figures as a fundamental element, which Marx convincingly refutes in the passage just cited on bourgeois crisis theory. I would like to remark in passing that the much mentioned 'contradictions' between the first and the third volumes of Capital—the inability of bourgeois economy to understand that the more concrete, modifying determinations of the third volume must have been known to Marx before the writing of the first volume—can be traced back to a similar methodological disposition. Clarity about this aspect of Marx's method is of great importance in understanding the materialist dialectic. There must be clarity about the fact that the so‑called simple categories are not trans‑historical elements of the system, but are just as much products of historical development as the concrete totalities to which they belong, and that, therefore, simple categories are correctly grasped from higher, more complicated, more concrete ones. That is to say it is only the comprehension of the concrete whole, to which the simple categories belong, that makes possible knowledge of the simple ones and not the other way round, even if as has already been outlined—its exposition must often take a reversed path.

All this provides an answer to Rudas's question—about whose rationale he does not even dare 'express his suspicions' (Arbeiterliteratur IX, p. 503)—as to why precisely I characterise as the decisive dialectical categories not transformation of quantity into quality, etc., but rather interaction of subject and object, unity of theory and praxis, alteration of the categories as effect of the change of material (reality underlying the categories). It is because, Comrade Rudas, expressed in thought in these categories is what is specific and new in that social stage of development when the proletariat emerges as an independent class and sets about the transformation of society. It would contradict the essence of historical materialism if we did not conceive the emergence of the dialectical method as just as much a part of the real historical process, perceiving simply a scientific development as much in the idealistic dialectic of Hegel as in its overturning, its 'putting on its feet' by Marx. We must always keep in view those real economic, class‑conditioned moments of history that make this mental development possible and motivated it. Then it becomes clear how much, on the one hand, those categories that in Hegel himself, in the most abstract and idealist part of his Logic ('Logic of the Concept') form the peak of his system, become real, practical moments of the proletarian class struggle. And, on the other hand, the 'simple' categories, whose determination and discernibility is dependent in both cases on the 'higher' categories, lose their idealist character in Marx, are placed on their feet, and appear as abstractions motivated by the historical process of development. Whatever 'simple' categories one takes in Marx, one will find that they can be correctly grasped only from this perspective. Whoever allows the 'decisive' categories mentioned above to disappear from the system as do all opportunists—eternalises the 'simple' categories in the form that they adopt in bourgeois immediacy. Thereby any dialectical function is gradually lost. Such a 'Marxist' economics all of a sudden transforms itself into vulgar bourgeois economics (Kautsky, Hilferding, etc.). 'Dialectical' categories that have been severed from this connection can even be used by bourgeois researchers; it is not inconceivable that they might, for example, be able to work with the transformation of quantity into quality. The category becomes properly dialectical only in the context of the dialectical totality, which can be achieved—mentally—only through the dialectical mediation of the 'simple' categories with the concrete 'higher' ones. It has to be in this interconnection because only this connection offers the real and correct mental reproduction of the real historical process. It is therefore social being that determines the consciousness of humans.


Lukács, Georg. A Defence of History and Class Consciousness: Tailism and the Dialectic, translated by Esther Leslie, with an introduction by John Rees and a postface by Slavoj Žižek (London; New York: Verso, 2000), section II.2, pp. 108-113.


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