Aristotle, Thomas, Marx: A Dialogue

The following was published on 3 January 2017 by “Juan Martinez”. It has been republished on Tradistae not as a full endorsement of its ideas but to provide an archive of the Tradinista project.

We are pleased to publish this dialogue on the subject of reconciling Marx with the Aristotelian-Thomist tradition.

STEPHANUS: Why do you guys care so much about Marx? Marx is overrated AND boring as all get out!

BRONTIUS: I’m down with Marx. Stephanus, who do you recommend we turn to for political economy?

STEPHANUS: Marx gets some things right–though often accidentally it seems–so I’ve no problem with limited applications of Marx in certain areas. But articles that ignore Marx’s Hegelian roots, or the many many erroneous metaphysical assumptions behind Marx’s thought can only be of limited value.

I’m no expert, though, so I’m happy to be proven wrong here.

I should also qualify the boring bit–plenty of Marx (and more so for Engels) is quite entertaining. But when he isn’t writing for the masses, he has far too much of the dry German academic style for my taste.

BRONTIUS: If you are worried about Marx’s supposed Hegelism, I’m sure Carolus could put you at ease.

STEPHANUS: Marx is Hegel upside down and backwards, no? I mean the same theory but matter instead of spirit at the end.

It has been 8 years since I read Marx or Hegel, so apply salt liberally to all I say here.

CAROLUS: I don’t suggest that Hegel had no influence on Marx (and neither does Meikle). On the contrary. (And a lot of good work has been done trying to highlight Hegelian elements in Marx, especially by so-called Value-Form Theorists like Chris Arthur or Geert Reuten.) But the questions to consider are: To what extent did Hegel influence Marx? What aspects of Hegel’s thought influenced Marx? Are those aspects amenable to Aristotelianism? (I won’t provide anything like a complete answer here, of course.)

In regard to his later work, his own remark (in the Postface to the Second Edition of Capital) that he “coquetted with the mode of expression peculiar to” Hegel sums up well the Hegelian element in that work. It’s not difficult to see why Marx would “coquette” with Hegel. Hegel’s method finds its roots in the study of organic beings and is, in effect, that study applied to all that exists. (Here the strange fact that Hegel means by “contradiction” what Aristotle means by “contrariety” becomes intelligible: contraries become “contradictory”––in the sense of materially incompatible––most clearly in organisms; as Hegel says in the Preface to the Phenomenology, the flower “negates” the bud, in the sense that, given the nature of the organism and its natural development, flower and bud cannot coexist.)

Marx adopts this “organic” approach, too, but in reference to society (as does Aristotle, of course, in the opening of the Politics, where he treats society as a “natural growth”). This approach is exhibited by a review of Capital, Vol. I, that Marx favorably cites:

Of still greater importance to [Marx] is the law of their [social-economic phenomena’s] variation, of their development, i.e. of their transition from one form to another, from one series of connections into a different one…The old economists misunderstood the nature of economic laws when they likened them to the laws of physics and chemistry. A more thorough analysis of the phenomena shows that the social organisms differ among themselves as fundamentally as plants or animals…The scientific value of such an inquiry lies in the illumination of the special laws that regulate the origin, existence, development and death of a given social organism and its replacement by another, higher one.

Marx then comments: “Here the reviewer pictures what he takes to be my own actual method, in a striking and, as far as concerns my own application of it, generous way. But what else is he depicting but the dialectical method?” (It also throws light on Marx’s conception of “dialectic, -s, -al” that he calls Aristotle a “truly dialectical” thinker; given how Marx conceives of dialectic, this is a fair characterization. Early on––around the time that he wrote the first German translation and commentary of the De Anima, as well as a partial translation of the Rhetoric––Marx intended to write a book on Aristotle defending him against the idealist interpretations of Trendelenburg.) His method is the “opposite” of Hegel’s in the sense that he begins, not from “the Idea” or the World-Spirit manifesting itself in history, but from particular forms of social life and particular individuals––individuals who, in responding to social conditions and in attempting to better their lives, bring about social change (often slowly and unconsciously).

This is also the crux of the “materialist” view of history. This is not any materialism according to which there exists only matter and nothing else. (An excellent article here is George Kline’s “The Myth of Marx’s Materialism,” which I can upload if people wish.) Indeed, that sort of materialism comes under criticism from Marx in many places: in the Holy Family, he calls French materialism a “metaphysically travestied nature severed from man”; in Capital, he rejects “the abstract materialism of natural science”; etc. (He is perhaps a “materialist” in the minimal sense that he thinks that e.g. pure spirits do not exist; but this is quite compatible with seeing material beings as having forms or essences. Marx in fact adopts just such a view. As he says against Hegel, the “universal is the essence of the finite real”: e.g. the “State” is not some eternal concept existing independently of history, but it has validity as a concept only because it picks out the essence of some particular things, i.e. of states.) By a “materialist” view of history, Marx means a view that accords explanatory primacy, not to the Hegelian “Idea,” but rather to the economic and social practices of individuals in particular societies. The “necessity” of history is not deterministic, but is (in Aristotle’s sense) the necessity by which a seedling develops into a tree; given that human nature is what it is, and given that particular societies have real natures (even if they’re only quasi-substances, or “compounds,” as Aristotle calls them), those societies will have a tendency to develop in certain ways––though, of course, accidents are always possible. While it’s mistaken to identify Engels’s thought with Marx’s, Engels speaks for both in a late letter of his:

“According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life. Neither Marx nor I have ever asserted more than this. Therefore if somebody twists this into saying that the economic factor is the only determining one, he is transforming that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, absurd phrase. The economic situation is the basis, but the various components of the superstructure…also exercise their influence upon the course of the historical struggles and in many cases determine their form in particular.”

And as he writes elsewhere,

“our conception of history is above all a guide to study, not a lever for construction after the matter of the Hegelians. All history must be studied afresh…But instead of this too many of the younger Germans simply make use of the phrase historical materialism (and everything can be turned into a phrase) only in order to get their own relatively scanty historical knowledge…constructed into a neat system as quickly as possible.”

There’s much more that could be said, but I will stop. Even if Meikle (and many other commentators) are wrong about Marx, however, something like the Aristotelian Marxism that he outlines is philosophically plausible and, I think, simply right. Much of what Marx says is, in any case, quite compatible with an explicitly Aristotelian-Thomistic foundation. Undoubtedly, certain elements of Marx’s thought need to be corrected––but that is no reason to disregard him. On the contrary, he has much to teach us.

STEPHANUS: Carolus, I’m mulling over what you say, and I’ll respond more at length. As for the Aristotelian bit, what do you make of Marx’s and Engles’s denial of quality–they both reduce quality simply to quantity, do they not?

CAROLUS: I’m not sure what you mean; which works/passages are you thinking of? But that claim strikes me as going against just about everything Marx wrote.

STEPHANUS: It may have been Engels, but I take him here to have been following Marx, who gave the example of color being reducible to quantity, and all “qualities” similarly being reducible to quantity. I’ll try to find the passage in a moment, but it was quite explicit.

Marx’s materialism may not be the materialism of some of the stupider naturalists of today, but he was far from Aristotle or Thomas, on my read at least. That doesn’t mean he has no value as to economic or political issues, but I’m personally wary of relying heavily on the ethical theories of those who are in error as to the philosophy of nature.

CAROLUS: Ah; perhaps Engels could have said such a thing, but it’s at best highly questionable whether his stuff on metaphysics, e.g. “Dialectics of Nature,” would be endorsed by Marx. Much of what Engels says about e.g. history, society, etc. is generally in accord with Marx; but when he turns to metaphysics, things become quite doubtful. But it’s hard to see, anyway, how Marx himself could reduce quality to quantity; Chapter 1 of Capital, for instance, relies on the contrast between the two. (There Marx also says: “Not an atom of matter enters into the objectivity of commodities as values; in this is it the direct opposed of the coarsely sensuous objectivity of commodities as physical objects.”)

Marx didn’t, of course, hold philosophical views identical to Aristotle or Thomas. To suppose that would be silly. But he can at least be regarded as an Aristotelian in a broad sense (what might be called a metaphysical realist or real essentialist). I haven’t mentioned Marx’s “ethical theory” so far, but I think that it’s also broadly Aristotelian (i.e. human beings are creatures with particular natures and hence with particular needs, and since they are political animals, they flourish in communities). It is perhaps wrong to rely “heavily” on Marx’s ethical theory; yet I do think that that theory is correct in broad outlines, but it certainly requires supplementation/revision in a more Aristotelian-Thomistic direction. (I don’t think, though, that Marx is in any serious error about the philosophy of nature.)

Are you thinking of this passage from “Dialectics of Nature”?:

In the first place, every qualitative infinity has many quantitative gradations, e.g. shades of colour, hardness and softness, length of life, etc., and these, although qualitatively distinct, are measurable and knowable.

In the second place, qualities do not exist but only things with qualities and indeed with infinitely many qualities. Two different things always have certain qualities (properties attaching to corporeality at least) in common, others differing in degree, while still others may be entirely absent in one of them. If we consider two such extremely different things – e.g. a meteorite and a man – together but in separation, we get very little out of it, at most that heaviness and other corporeal properties are common to both. But an infinite series of other natural objects and natural processes can be put between the two things, permitting us to complete the series from meteorite to man and to allocate to each its place in the interconnection of nature and thus to know them.

Supposing that Engels does indeed speak for Marx here, this passage certainly doesn’t show that quality is nothing but quantity. To say that qualities admit of various intensities––a kind of quantitative measurement––doesn’t turn quality into quantity. Nor does saying that qualities don’t exist independently, but are always qualities of some thing (a thing which will typically have quantitative dimensions as well), reduce quality into quantity.

NICODEMUS: Carolus – in light of this use of the acorn analogy and Hegel’s essentialization (effectively) of accidental change by the conflation of contrariety and the contradictory, what would he say about the family and the village as they exist in a developed state? Or, for that matter, the individual? More generally, what about any private good or limited non-ultimate common good?

Finally, how does this determine his view of economics? Your explanation makes me real curious about all these things.

CAROLUS: The family is not a monad, and will be affected by the society around it. (As MacIntyre says: “The family flourishes only if its social environment also flourishes…Generally and characteristically then the goods of family life are achieved in and with the goods of various types of local community.”) Marx was sensitive to this, and saw capitalism as deforming the modern family, turning the latter into “a mere money relationship,” disembedding people (in order to seek work) from their families and families from communities, etc. Hence he regarded appeal to the “sanctity” of the family as hypocritical. Marx, and especially Engels, was also aware of the various forms (often, unsavory in character) that the family has taken throughout history. And Marx, but Engels more vociferously, called for the abolition of the bourgeois family. What this would be replaced by under communism is not entirely clear. In any event, I don’t, of course, endorse all or most of Marx’s views on the family, but I do agree with two points: (1) the bourgeois (“nuclear”) family is problematic; but that doesn’t mean that the family itself ought to be done away with, but rather that families need to be more integrated with their communities and with other relatives. (2) The precondition for the flourishing of families is a flourishing society, and a step towards the latter would be the abolition of capitalism in favor of…[communism, distributism, etc.; I try not to cook up recipes for the future]. While Aristotle may have regarded the polis as the form of society adequate to human nature, Marx would argue that only a communist society could be so. (This is not to say, of course, that there wouldn’t be problems in communist society. Far from it. Even if many ills are socially conditioned, human beings are always and everywhere wicked; there would still be natural inequalities among individuals; diseases and afflictions of various kinds would still be present; some form of the rule of law would still be necessary; etc.)

Concerning the individual, perhaps the most legitimate complaint that one might have with Marx is not that he drowned the individual in a sea of collectivism, but rather the opposite: that his social philosophy is too individualistic. The prominent place of the individual is a theme that echoes throughout all of Marx’s work, from earliest to latest. (i) In the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, he writes that, under communism, “[e]very one of your relations to man and to nature must be a specific expression…of your real individual life,” rather than your life being alienated as under capitalism. (ii) In the German Ideology, he says:

“in a communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic.”

This is a romanticized picture, of course, but it brings to light the emphasis on the individual in Marx. (iii) In the Grundrisse, communism is characterized as “free exchange among individuals who are associated on the basis of common appropriation and control of the means of production.” (iv) In Capital, communism is envisioned as “a community of free individuals, carrying on their work with the means of production in common.” (v) Finally, in Marx’s first work on political economy, the “Comments on James Mill,” he writes:

“Let us suppose that we had carried out production as human beings. Each of us would have in two ways affirmed himself and the other person. 1) In my production I would have objectified my individuality, its specific character, and therefore enjoyed not only an individual manifestation of my life during the activity, but also when looking at the object I would have the individual pleasure of knowing my personality to be objective, visible to the senses and hence a power beyond all doubt. 2) In your enjoyment or use of my product I would have the direct enjoyment both of being conscious of having satisfied a human need by my work, that is, of having objectified man’s essential nature, and of having thus created an object corresponding to the need of another man’s essential nature. 3) I would have been for you the mediator between you and the species, and therefore would become recognised and felt by you yourself as a completion of your own essential nature and as a necessary part of yourself, and consequently would know myself to be confirmed both in your thought and your love. 4) In the individual expression of my life I would have directly created your expression of your life, and therefore in my individual activity I would have directly confirmed and realised my true nature, my human nature, my communal nature. Our products would be so many mirrors in which we saw reflected our essential nature…My work would be a free manifestation of life, hence an enjoyment of life.”

Further, Marx plausibly holds to a trans-historical conception of human nature. References to human nature appear again and again in Marx’s early work, but they also do so in Capital. In the context of critiquing Bentham’s utilitarianism, he writes:

“To know what is useful for a dog, one must investigate the nature of dogs…Applying this to man, he that would judge all human acts, movements, relations, etc. according to the principle of utility would first have to deal with human nature in general, and then with human nature as historically modified in each epoch.”

When Marx speaks sometimes about how people, in transforming nature through their work, also transform their own natures, this needn’t be read as saying that human beings essentially alter their natures (what would that even mean?), but simply that they realize certain potentials within human nature, acquire new social relations and skills, etc. Effectively the only passage that would seem to indicate that Marx denied any trans-historical human nature comes in the Sixth Thesis on Feuerbach: “But the essence of man is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In reality, it is the ensemble of the social relations.” This enigmatic statement can certainly be read in various ways, but it needn’t necessarily be read as denying any nature to human beings apart from that given by their social relations. Indeed, one year earlier, in the “Comments on James Mill,” Marx wrote something very similar but which makes clear that he’s not denying some trans-historical human nature:

“[A]s long as man does not recognise himself as man, and therefore has not organised the world in a human way, this community appears in the form of estrangement, because its subject, man, is a being estranged from himself. Men, not as an abstraction, but as real, living, particular individuals, are this entity. Hence, as they are, so is this entity itself. To say that man is estranged from himself, therefore, is the same thing as saying that the society of this estranged man is a caricature of his real community, of his true species-life…”

(MacIntyre also reads the Sixth Thesis in the same way that I do, in his article “The Theses on Feuerbach: A Road Not Taken”; and a painstaking defense of the same view is given by Norman Geras in his book, Marx and Human Nature.)

All of this also throws light on the issue of “private goods” or “limited non-ultimate common goods.” Marx certainly respects the goods of individuals and does not sacrifice them for the sake of “Utopia” (as happened tragically in the USSR and elsewhere). Communism, on his view, is precisely a way of respecting those goods: abolishing the anarchic and agonistic “free market”––especially the labor market––and establishing better (more human) way of working and allocating resources.

I’ve already said too much, but let me say something about Marx’s “organicist” and essentialist approach to society in relation to economics.

First, Marx was not an economist; he was rather, as the subtitle of Capital puts it, offering a “critique” of political economy. Although he doesn’t say what exactly he means by “critique,” it’s perhaps best understood in the sense of Kant’s critiques: a critical examination of the limits of political economy.

Second, Marx’s approach to society gives a prominent place to the specific social form of the economy under consideration. As he writes in relation to society:

“Our general definitions do not advance our understanding. An explanation…which fails to supply the differentia is no explanation at all…[T]he real subjects…are and remain uncomprehended because their specific nature has not been grasped.”

Marx’s main complaint against the “political economists”––and all those who adopt the perspective of “methodological individualism”––is their abstractness. In e.g. their Robinsonades, they seek to derive laws of economics that are valid always and everywhere, but Marx thinks that such laws can only be trivial and hence of little explanatory significance. For instance, even if it were true that agents always act so as to maximize self-interest, that tells us very little about what conceptions of self-interest individuals have, what social conditions constrain individuals’ pursuit of self-interest, etc. Without bringing in the specificities of the society in question, economics is apt to become a peddler of “general definitions” that are uninformative for understanding particular societies.

Third, for Marx, laws express natures. The economic laws of a certain society are what they are because that society is what it is. Hence e.g. Marx’s “law of value” (i.e. the tendency for commodities to be sold according to the amount of “socially necessary [abstract] labor-time” embodied in them [or rather, at their “prices of production,” which is determined by socially necessary labor-time]) does not apply always and everywhere, but rather only to capitalist society. Only with the formal independence of economic firms, with widespread competition, with production for the sake of profit-making, with large-scale industry, and with money mediating all economic transactions does the law of value hold sway.

Fourth, Marx maintains that, just as the parts of an organism cannot be understood in isolation from the whole, so also features of the economy must be seen in their interrelation to one another. Hence Marx rejects an atomist or empiricist or individualist approach to political economy.

Fifth, societies are not always entirely harmonious wholes. This is because the “matter” of societies is human beings. But human beings are not indeterminate lumps of matter, but have natures of their own. Since society is not strictly a substance, but only a quasi-substance, there is the possibility for the “material” element, i.e. human beings and their activities, to be out of tune with the form of society. As a very peculiar sort of matter (again, where matter is simply contrasted with form), human beings and their social relations––and “productive forces”––can develop in ways that run against the prevailing social order, and this can sometimes produce a revolution. (This is in addition to the other “contradictions” immanent in a social formation.)

Note that when Marx talks about “productive forces” as the motor of history, these do not include only e.g. bare technology or tools; they also include the social form in which production is carried out. For instance, it’s not merely the existence of machinery and other advanced technology that paves the way for communism; it’s the collective knowledge that workers in e.g. factories have that makes it possible. As some (e.g. libertarian socialists like Kevin Carson) argue, the way in which large capitalist corporations are organized is in fact highly inefficient: here the capitalist class relations actually hinder the efficient deployment of “productive forces” (or “natural or social power[s] of labour”). Only what Marx calls “associated labor”––workers working in cooperation with one another––can efficiently deploy those forces.

Further, as Engels notes, in every generation, there is always some sort of resistance to the forms of exploitation that prevail. The effectiveness of such resistance, however, depends upon how developed the productive forces are. If new productive forces are not already present, even inchoately, in the current society, then a revolution will not be successful, since it could not sustain a new kind of society.

CAEDMON: I would be happy to hear a great deal more of this, Carolus.

NICODEMUS: I am actually very much enjoying this, because even though I think what Marx wrought was poisonous, I also think he is often not clearly understood and it is a genuine joy to see someone carefully and impartially explaining his philosophical character. Really, thank you – this is the stuff that makes arguments into discussions.
I am a bit busy, but I wonder whether most economists wouldn’t respond by saying “granting Marx’s critique, none of us are preparing to establish a set definition of self-interest; if you give a definition we will show how that definition demands certain rules of economic action that are at least analogous developments of reason about the logic of quantifying value and what those result in for your material situation; and privately we disagree on what self-interest is.”

For example, Acton’s folks have a notion of self-interest that, whatever the flaws, undeniably involves some elements of virtue-based piety, avoidance of sin, etc., whereas IHS is described as “the Institute for Heroin and Sodomy” as a not-quite joke. There are different notions there about the purpose of the human person and I wonder whether one can entirely eliminate self-interest from any human equation considered as the act of the will based in, for example, apprehension of one’s own dignity.

The question in the end becomes whether it is possible to integrate a paradoxically selfless self-interest into the social scheme – a self-interest that recognizes for example that our life belongs to God and that it IS our good to do His Will. But this is I think not something easy to discuss in the context of economics and I would be interested in hearing arguments as to why self-interest can ONLY mean something opposed to this.

STEPHANUS: The Engels text is quite clear–it is in the Anti-Duhring. He uses the example first of calculus–which we should recall was poorly understood and taught back then–and then of water. A change in quantity of temperature changes ice into water into vapor. Engels writes “the quantity is transformed into quality”.

But would Marx reject Engels here? I’m not so sure. I will continue mulling this over.

In praise of Marx–or Marx as read by Meikle at least–I do think that he understood in an important way the way in which Capitalism commodifies even man himself.

As for the “Aristotelian” bit, Marx badly misunderstands the common good, Marx (or at least Engels) badly misunderstands metaphysics in his disastrous notion (taken in a modified way from Hegel) of contradiction. De Koninck himself recognizes that the Marxist of his day “holds Aristotle in esteem,” but in doing so the Marxists completely bungle Aristotle’s teachings–or if they do not misunderstand what Aristotle was saying they think he was wrong but in a sort of precursory pointing to the future type of way.

Marx (and Hegel as well) are very unclear about what contradiction is and speak of it in different ways in different places. This is partially because what they seek to establish is so wrong that no-one could consistently hold it all the time–indeed, their idea is against consistency itself!–but at least in some places they hold actual contradiction as being objectively accomplished and actually existing in the real world.

This is, of course, a colossal bungle! While it is true that Aristotle (or Aristotelians and Thomists will say, at least, including myself) that motion is a certain mixture of being and non-being, this is possible first because non-being is taken in two sense: (1) in the sense of potency, i.e. non-being here is already a division of being as such, and the non-being is nothing other than being in potency, and second in an absolute sense, non-being as opposed to being as such simply. And second, this is possible because motion is not a mixture which is determinately in act, but rather is the act of the potential as such.

Marxists at least (again, I apologize for not referring to Marx himself, but he is lengthy, difficult, and also his thought changed over time. I’ll try to see if Marx himself is better than Marxists including Engels, but if that is the case then Marx would be correct while “Marxism” would be false for all the reasons stated), in fact take motion to be an actual contradiction, not merely a possible contradiction. IOW, Marxism attributes to “being” things that can only be true of “becoming.”

This is no small error.

So much for Marxism’s “metaphysics.”

Again, as for his political and ethical thought–it is monstrous! And rather than be longer winded than I already have been, I’ll merely point to De Koninck’s “The Primacy of the Common Good Against the Personalists”, “The Principle of the New Order”, and “In Defense of St. Thomas.” Suffice it to say that Marx radically misunderstands the nature of the common good.

In brief — Marxism does not require supplementation. It requires a correction and reworking — a repudiation even! — of its first principles. That Marxism is trenchant in its criticism of capitalism I will grant, but this says more about the broad and easy nature of the target than it does about the accuracy or goodness of the archer.

CAROLUS: Nicodemus, sorry, that bit on self-interest was mainly my own example of an un-illuminative abstraction of economics. (Some of the abstractions that Marx mentions would be e.g. defining capital merely as a “thing” (rather than also as a social relation), such that it can be said that capital exists in all societies; talking about “exchange” in abstraction from the ways in which the exchanged goods were produced; viewing money as a “veil” beneath which the true economic relations exist; and so on.) Marx doesn’t talk much about self-interest per se, but he does talk about “utility,” and he says basically the same thing: even if it’s true that people seek to maximize utility, this doesn’t really explain much, since how people maximize their utility is highly dependent upon social conditions, and insofar as political economy abstracts from these social conditions, it prevents itself from throwing light on the workings of capitalist society––at least as these workings differ from those of other economic formations. (It also follows that, insofar as one attempts to derive substantive conclusions merely from considerations of utility, one will be smuggling the social content in, often for “ideological” purposes. MacIntyre makes basically the same point vis-à-vis utilitarianism in After Virtue.)

Anyway, it’s trivially true that people pursue “self-interest” in some sense. But not much follows from this. And self-interest isn’t necessarily a bad thing. As Thomas teaches after all, love of self (which is perhaps a variety of self-interest, good self-interest, interest in what’s good for oneself) is the foundation for the love of others. (Cf. David Gallagher’s good essay on this subject, “Thomas Aquinas on Self-Love as the Basis for Love of Others.”)

Stephanus, regarding you objections, I would say this: undoubtedly, Engels adheres, in Anti-Dühring and in Dialectics of Nature, to the Hegelian doctrine that quantity can transform into quality: e.g. molecular motion “becomes” heat; the addition of molecules can change the nature of a chemical compound; and the addition of many workers together creates a “new power,” distinct from and greater than what the workers could do separately. But it’s absurd to say that this doctrine––whether for Engels or Hegel––makes quality into nothing but quantity. Saying “X transforms into Y” doesn’t reduce Y to X, nor does saying “Y depends on X” reduce Y to X.

Further, we must remember that, if quantity transforms into quality, the reverse also holds for Engels. Indeed, the first of Engels’s three “laws” of metaphysics, as he writes in Dialectics of Nature, is: “The law of the transformation of quantity into quality, and vice versa.” The mutual dependence of quality and quantity isn’t hard to grasp: every quantity––except, perhaps, in the case of pure numbers, which isn’t what Engels is talking about––is always a quantity of something and that something will have qualities of various kinds. (This also exemplifies his second law of metaphysics: “The law of the interpenetration of opposites.”)

So: it’s highly implausible that Engels reduces quality “simply” to quantity. And it’s also doubtful––and, like the Marx-Engels relationship generally, the subject of significant scholarly debate––whether the ideas in Engels’s “metaphysical” works can be ascribed to Marx. I think not, but we can leave this point aside.

Now, I’m not sure in what ways you think Marx badly misunderstands the common good (I’m willing to grant that he partly misunderstands it––hence the need for supplementation and revision, perhaps even at the level of (the specifics of) ontology), so I’ll leave that aside too. In any case, I have nothing but the highest respect for de Koninck’s work on the common good and I regard it as quite right. (Sadly, I think de Koninck profoundly misunderstood Marx––though he may well have understood so-called “Marxism,” which, especially in its Soviet form, is a perverse and stupid corruption of Marx’s thought.)

On to contradiction! It’s quite possible, I think, for contradictions to exist in reality. Even a Thomist could agree to this. The reason, again, is that Marx follows Hegel’s usage in speaking of “contradiction” in the sense that Aristotle would speak of “contrariety.” One may justifiably disagree with this terminology, of course, and it no doubt leads to confusion; but to understand Marx, we have to understand his (often murky) terminology.

(Unfortunately, Marx never got around to writing the short treatise on his use of “dialectic” that he was planning. Alas. I think the reason, however, that he, like Hegel, uses the term “contradiction” is because of its connotation of “mutual incompatibility.” But mutual incompatibility does not occur merely at the level of logic or metaphysics. There are, plausibly, more concrete types of incompatibility. For instance, given current atmospheric conditions, it is impossible for an insect to be, let’s suppose, 10 feet long; this is because, as insects get bigger, their respiratory systems take up a larger percentage of their bodies, until, at some point, there would be no more space left for any other organs. This is an example of what we might call a “physical” contradiction. Marx is interested in analogous types of contradictions that we might call “social.” Further, for Marx, capitalism is perverse in part because, in it, agents behave as if a misguided metaphysic were true: e.g. it is only through the sale of commodities on the market that the concrete labors of individuals become validated as socially useful, and hence those labors become treated as “abstract.” Thus, it’s sometimes the case that Marx is simply describing the as-if metaphysical weirdness of the “commodity world,” not propounding such weirdness himself. Moreover, the social world is susceptible of contradiction/tension in a way that the natural world is not; people e.g. can act upon incoherent beliefs and such beliefs can be embodied at a social level. Hence social things, like money, can have “immanent contradictions,” contradictions constitutive of the thing in question. But perhaps natural things can, too: recall Hegel on the flower and the bud. These natural contradictions, however, are more harmonious than social ones; e.g. the transition from bud to flower doesn’t provoke a “crisis” in the plant. Finally, form and matter can also be in “contradiction,” e.g. if I make a knife out of rubber. The matter is here unsuited to, and hence in contradiction with, the form; and this is because the matter isn’t prime matter, but matter that’s already in-formed in some way (what Hegel calls “content”), such that the rubber’s form clashes with the form of the knife.) But the point to grasp is that, in Marx’s sense, contradictions (e.g. of capitalism) are not logical contradictions: it’s not as though, under capitalism, something is both A and not-A at the same time and in the same respect. Marx’s contradictions are simply “tensions” that exist within capitalism.

For instance, he writes in Capital, Vol. II:

“Contradiction in the capitalist mode of production. The workers are important for the market as buyers of commodities. But as sellers of their commodity––labour-power––capitalist society has the tendency to restrict them to the minimum price.”

This is plainly no logical contradiction. In fact, Chesterton, in the “Outline of Sanity,” makes an identical point:

“Capitalism is contradictory as soon as it is complete; because it is dealing with the mass of men in two opposite ways at once. When most men are wage-earners, it is more and more difficult for most men to be customers. For, the capitalist is always trying to cut down what his servant demands, and in doing so is cutting down what his customer can spend.”

Are we, then, to regard Chesterton as a proponent of dark Hegelianism? Similar “contradictions” of this sort include: the fact that a commodity is essentially both a use-value and an exchange-value; that private property requires the state; that money enables private persons to acquire social power; the divergent interests of labor and capital; and so on. Again, none of these are contradictions in Aristotle’s sense. Rather, they are tensions that––because they are not consciously managed (though they may be, to a certain extent) and thus are left to the impersonal operation of the market––can turn into crises if the conditions are right.

Concerning motion: While it is true that Hegel, Engels, and many soi-disant “Marxists” (e.g. Mao) regard motion itself as essentially contradictory, I can’t find any instance where Marx himself says this. But in Chapter 3 of Capital, he does talk about the “contradiction” of a certain kind of motion:

“We saw in a former chapter that the exchange of commodities implies contradictory and mutually exclusive conditions. The further development of the commodity does not abolish these contradictions, but rather provides the form within which they have room to move. This is, in general, the way in which real contradictions are resolved. For instance, it is a contradiction to depict one body as constantly flying towards another and at the same time constantly flying away from it. The ellipse is a form of motion within which this contradiction is both realized and resolved.”

Here, however, the ellipse, though “contradictory,” is also that which resolves a contradiction. More generally, capitalism “resolves” its contradictions by moving them around (or by focusing on different aspects of the contradiction at various times). Insofar as, e.g. in the case of the ellipse, motion involves “contradictory” elements (flying away from X, flying towards X), it’s the particular form of motion that resolves these. Once again, this isn’t a contradiction in any strict logical sense or Aristotelian sense, but rather in the sense of a tension between prima facie (materially) incompatible properties.

This is also how Hegel’s doctrine that motion itself is contradictory must be understood. He writes in the Science of Logic:

“A thing only moves, not when it is at this instant here and at another instant there, but when it is at one and the same instant here and not there…[From this] it does not follow that that motion does not occur, but rather that motion is existent contradiction itself.”

(However, note that, while Hegel sometimes says [like here] that motion itself is contradictory, he elsewhere seems to indicate that motion is rather the result of contradictions in things: contradiction “is the root of all movement and vitality.”) The “contradiction” here is that it seems contradictory (or: strange, absurd, etc.) for something to be at one instant here and another instant there (although what exactly is contradictory about saying that X is here at T1 and there at T2?); this “contradiction” is expressed in/resolved by motion. But this isn’t a logical contradiction either.

The upshot is that, although it’s perhaps doubtful (I can’t find any explicit passages, anyway) that Marx thought of motion itself as contradictory, it would not be a metaphysical disaster if he did. This is because of the sense in which he, like Hegel, uses the term “contradiction.” In any case, I heartily agree with the Aristotelian-Thomistic account of motion that you’ve given.

The wickedness of capitalism doubtless makes it an easy target for criticism. But unfortunately most other critics of capitalism have much worse aim than Marx does. At any rate, Marx has much to teach us––especially we Aristotelians and Thomists. MacIntyre made this point last year, in his epilogue to What Happened in and to Moral Philosophy in the Twentieth Century?:

“What therefore neither [Marxists nor Thomists] took seriously was the thought that Marx’s narrative of how human beings had come to misconceive their own nature, relationships, and powers presupposed not one of the liberal post-Enlightenment conceptions of human nature but something much closer to Aristotle’s conception and, that is to say, something uncomfortably close to Aquinas’s. Yet, if this is so, dialogue between these very different voices is badly needed, dialogue that acknowledges the need of each to learn from the other and the depth of some of their disagreements. It is a dialogue that would draw upon the significant work already done on Marx’s often unrecognized Aristotelian commitments, most notably by Scott Meikle.”

This dialogue is needed for two reasons:

“First, both in philosophy and in everyday life the currently dominant conceptions of human nature and human agency disguise and mislead. They therefore need to be challenged and undermined by a philosophical critique that is able to draw upon both Thomism and Marxism. Second, we need a better characterization than we now have of the predicaments generated by the ethics, politics, and economics of advanced modernity, so that, for example, in our reflections on the role and function of money in our lives we learn to think in terms that are at once economic and moral, terms that enable us to integrate thoughts from Aristotle, Aquinas, and Marx––and also from Simmel, and others––into a single critique.”

Quite right.

STEPHANUS: Unlike you, I take Hegel at his word. He believes in actual contradiction. Why else go to so much trouble to reject the law of non-contradiction?

But I think if one uses contradiction so loosely as to include the fact that an insect has a determinate size, and that a rubber knife could exist but the material would be badly suited to the function of a knife (viz. cutting), that contradiction simply means tension, then one has to wonder why the term was used in the first place, and why so much ink was spilled over the theory initially?

Again, granting that Marx has some sort of essentialism–which is not nothing, mind you–I’m not really seeing that he is an Aristotelian.

But I’m heartened by the fact you agree with De Koninck’s critique of Marxism, you just think it doesn’t apply to Karl Marx himself–do I have you right there?

NICODEMUS: Of course, Stephanus, there is the real possibility that Marx just wasn’t as rigorous as he seemed he was being, which is not unbelievable given the blatantly rhetorical character of much of his writing.

STEPHANUS: Well, if I’m right (and I’m mostly following De Koninck) that Marxists and Engels are wrong for at least the reasons given, it would say something about the clarity and rigor of Marx if his followers, including the man with whom he collaborated most closely, all radically misunderstood him.

I mean it is possible, but at that point, what kind of teacher and writer is Marx?

CAROLUS: It’s unhelpful to appeal to “tak[ing] Hegel at his word” in regard to the principle of non-contradiction, since we want to know precisely what (non-) “contradiction” means for him. So yes, real contradictions exist for Hegel; the task is to understand what this can mean. The better way is to look at his philosophical practice, i.e. concrete examples and analyses of contradictions that he gives. That is what I was doing with his example of motion.

Why all the fuss about the principle of non-contradiction for Hegel, then? The main objection to it is that it affords only a static picture of things (or the principle is only used in a static way). For Hegel, in order to grasp the way in which things are constituted by certain differences/relations to other things (e.g. the organs of the body), something more than a mere identity/difference contrast is needed. More generally, it’s the static, abstract, one-sidedness of the principle of non-contradiction that Hegel rejects; what appear, from a static or abstract perspective, as “contradictions” are reconciled from a broader perspective, one that grasps the unity (often processual) of things. But Hegel exegesis isn’t really the point here.

A lot of what this discussion, so far, is really about is what it means to call someone an “Aristotelian.” Certainly, no one claims that Marx held identical views to Aristotle. Further, after his early years, Marx offered very few explicit remarks either on metaphysics or indeed on the philosophical foundations of his work generally; these must be gleaned from bits and pieces throughout his work (and, of course, his thought develops over time). Readings of Marx that focus on the Aristotelian aspects of his work do indeed employ “Aristotelian” in a thin sense: e.g. that things exist apart from us and have natures/causal powers that are knowable; that man is a political animal; that the good life is one of activity (for Marx, free purposive productive activity); that justice involves not bare equality, but rather equity, respecting the differences of individuals; that society must be thought of organically (not atomistically and not as the result of, say, a social contract); and so forth. Does this warrant calling Marx’s thought “Aristotelian”? Many, including me, think so. Others may disagree.

I agree with de Koninck’s work on the common good, i.e. insofar as he is expounding the truth about the common good according to Thomas. But what he says about Marx and Marxism, however, is of a mixed character. Some of it applies to Marx (e.g. Marx certainly was an atheist––though not in a philosophical sense, and neither he nor Engels advocated religious persecution––and, like Prometheus, perhaps hated “the pack of gods”; but he of course saw religion as a necessary balm that people used to assuage their alienation and had a greater respect for religion than for most “secularists” of his day (e.g. he told his wife that, if she needed her “metaphysical needs” satisfied, she should read the Hebrew prophets instead of attending her secular society meeting; sometimes he took his family to hear the sung Mass; etc.)), and with that I don’t have much quarrel. Some of it applies mainly to “Marxism,” i.e. Marx’s professed followers. But de Koninck offers a very Hegelian reading of Marx––one that relies heavily on Marx’s early works––and this I find implausible.

Why Marx was misunderstood––by Engels, but more so by “Marxists,” like Plekhanov, Kautsky, and Lenin––is a difficult question. Partly it’s because, at least in his later work, he is very reticent about his philosophical commitments; his comments on philosophical topics are scattered throughout his “scientific” work on political economy, and a lot of work is required to stitch these comments together into a “system.” The reason for his reticence is presumably because he thought philosophy was irrelevant to his practical and social-scientific pursuits: the working class didn’t need a treatise on metaphysics from him. (Also, Marx could hardly have expected that his work would, after his death, be turned into a set of dogmas that served as an entire worldview––although, indeed, already during his lifetime people were calling themselves “Marxists,” which led him to say, “All I know is that I’m not a Marxist.”) Further, a large part of the blame for the misunderstanding of Marx by so-called “Marxists” was the crude philosophical knowledge that many of them had (including Engels, who––unlike Marx, who had a doctorate in philosophy––was an autodidact philosopher, and who, having read all the main works of metaphysics in just a few months’ time, immediately proclaimed his “system” of dialectics). For instance, most Marxists seemed to think that, if Marx was not an idealist, then the only option was for him to be a “materialist,” and that a materialist just is a physicalist, such that “Marxism” explains everything in terms of “matter in motion.” Another part of the misunderstanding, at least as far as the establishment of e.g. the USSR was concerned, was also due to the fact that the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 and the German Ideology––writings which present a more “humanistic” aspect to Marx’s thought––were published only in the 1930’s; neither Lenin nor the other founders of the USSR had read those texts.

As for Engels, while he displayed a better grasp of Marx’s work than most later “Marxists” (especially in relation to Marx’s work on political economy, society, etc., though plausibly much less so in relation to metaphysics), he nevertheless both misunderstood Marx in certain ways and undeniably contributed to that misunderstanding in others. This was partially due to the fact that Volumes II and III of Capital were not completed by Marx, and Engels had to cobble them together from various scattered papers and fragments, resulting, often quite tendentiously, in various omissions and insertions of his own into the text. (An egregious example is, in Volume III, his comments that the object of Chapter 1 of Capital is “simple commodity production,” not capitalism. This has rightly received much criticism from commentators.) Partly, again, it was perhaps due to Engels’s lack of philosophical acumen. But it is also true that Marx at least was aware of what Engels was saying––even concerning metaphysics––and didn’t correct him. If he disagreed with Engels, why didn’t he say so? This is a hard question, and one can only speculate. Perhaps it was due to Marx’s friendship with Engels; or because Marx was financially dependent upon him; or because, after the 1840’s, Marx didn’t have much interest in matters of ontology, but was concerned with his work on political economy; or because he thought any metaphysical quarrel was irrelevant to the more important task of empowering the working class; or because he didn’t think that Engels’s metaphysical work would be taken seriously (as, alas, it was). (These ideas––and more on Marx’s alleged “materialism” and relation to Engels––are given in George Kline’s article, “The Myth of Marx’s Materialism.” MacIntyre (in “The Theses on Feuerbach”) put me onto Kline’s work, since he agrees with “George L. Kline’s thesis… that Marx did not have a materialist ontology.”)

CAEDMON: Carolus, you are right to point out that most of the discussion has revolved around establishing Marx’s essentialist credentials. But this is really just prologue, since were Marx’s thought impossible to reconcile with Thomism, we would be free to simply ignore him, and chastise his followers for their errors.

What we are ultimately interested in are true, sound principles of e.g. political economy, not simply that Marx can be viewed (perhaps obliquely) through a Thomist lens. What, then, would you say is the most profitable way for the Thomist to read Marx? To summarize what you’ve written above, what are the key deficiencies in his thought that need filling-in from Thomistic or Aristotelian sources, and what are the clearest ways in which Marx and later thinkers in his vein genuinely contribute to the Thomistic tradition?

CAROLUS: Of most usefulness to the Aristotelian or Thomist is Marx’s work on political economy, rather than that on more “philosophical” topics in particular. Much of what Marx says philosophically is, I believe, consonant with an “Aristotelian” approach, but I don’t think that he adds much new that is also philosophically useful. But what he writes on political economy is, I think, very profound and on the whole correct. Capital––and the Grundrisse and the three parts of Theories of Surplus-Value––demand careful reading. Much of what he says in these texts also doesn’t (or needn’t) depend, in any significant way, on Marx’s metaphysics (other than upon his view that things have essences that are knowable). The existence of “analytical” Marxism––although a departure, self-consciously so, from Marx himself––is a testament to this. What aspects of his work on political economy, however, are important, and to what extent these are “infected” by e.g. his atheism, would require a lot of work to spell out. I’ll hopefully do this at a future moment, when I have more time. But even if one disagrees with his interpretation of Marx, the works by Meikle that I posted point the way towards a more fruitful dialogue between Marxists and Aristotelians––towards how to make use of Marx’s thought if you’re an Aristotelian.

For now, here’s a good list of other works (articles and books) on Marx and Aristotle (most sympathetic, some critical):

  • Tony Burns, “Materialism in Ancient Greek Philosophy and in the Writings of the Young Marx”
  • Denys Turner, Marxism and Christianity
  • Terry Eagleton, Why Marx Was Right
  • Howard Engelskirchen, Capital as a Social Kind
  • Kathryn Dean, Capitalism, Citizenship and the Arts of Thinking: A Marxian-Aristotelian Linguistic Account
  • James Farr, “Marx’s Laws”
  • Georg Lukács, Ontology of Social Being, Vol. 3
  • Patrick Murray, “Marx’s ‘Truly Social’ Labour Theory of Value,” Parts I and II
  • Marcel Reding, Thomas von Aquin und Karl Marx [in German]
  • William Clare Roberts, “The Labors of Karl Marx: Tekhnê, Valorization, Revolution” (dissertation)*
  • G. E. M. de Ste. Croix, The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World
  • Vanessa Wills, “Marx and Morality” (dissertation)
  • and many other articles by Scott Meikle.

*This dissertation also sketches out the striking similarities between Capital, Vol. I, and Dante’s Inferno. We already knew, of course, that reading Capital is hell, but it’s also structured in analogous ways to Dante’s work (e.g. 33 cantos + 1 introductory one vs. 33 chapters of Capital), littered with allusions to Dante, and the subject-matter of the various parts corresponds roughly to the levels of hell. So Capital, intentionally or not, can be read as a kind of descent into the hell of capitalism.