Review of Kevin Anderson’s ‘Dialectics of Revolution’

Tony Smith

A review of Kevin B. Anderson’s Dialectics of Revolution, emphasizing different Marxist thinkers and their relationships (or lackthereof) to Hegelian dialectics. Originally published in the October 2021 issue of Science & Society. –Editors

Dialectics of Revolution: Hegel, Marxism, and Its Critics Through a Lens of Race, Class, Gender, and Colonialism, by Kevin B. Anderson. Ottawa: Daraja Press, 2020. paper, $35 Pp. xii, 242.

Kevin Anderson is best known as the author of Marx on the Margins, an influential defense of Marx against criticisms that his theory was reductionist, Eurocentric, and patriarchal.  Anderson argued that Marx’s critics failed to adequately appreciate the dialectical complexity of his theorizing.  The essays collected in the book under review here, written over the course of four decades, discuss the appropriation of Hegelian dialectics by Marx and subsequent Marxian theorists, focusing on “dialectics not only in an academic sense, but also as a philosophy of revolution that helps shape social activism and revolution” (3).

The story begins with Marx’s appropriation of Hegel.  As Anderson points out, the simplistic opposition between Hegel the “idealist” and Marx the “materialist” is misleading.  Hegel’s “idealist” philosophy affirms the single most important thing about material reality there is to know: “Contradiction is at the root of all movement and life” (quoted on 14).  Effective practical activity, then, requires an understanding of the latent objective possibilities for the future opened-up by the contradictions of today.  Marx called for a practical materialism incorporating such active thinking.

For Anderson, Lenin counts as the first “Hegelian Marxist” of the twentieth century, asserting that it was impossible to fully understand Capital without having studied Hegel’s Science of Logic (43).  Anderson credits Lenin’s reading of Hegel with his insight that the spread of imperialism was leading to the emergence of opposing national liberation movements with revolutionary potential  (73-75).  In contrast, Bukharin’s lack of facility in dialectical thinking led to his abstract principle that nationality has no place in class politics.  (The importance of indigenous forms of resistance to capital is a recurrent theme of these essays.)  For Anderson, it was unfortunate that Lenin did not publish his commentary on Hegel’s Science of Logic.  If he had, perhaps a simplistic mechanical materialism would not have been codified as communist dogma under Stalin (79).  

Lukács too realized the importance of Hegelian dialectics in Marx’s thought even before the publication of Marx’s early manuscripts on Hegel.  Lukács also established that in his earlier writings, at least, Hegel’s examination of the dialectical contradictions of the modern state and modern market societies strikingly anticipated Marx (141).  Lukács did not, however, note how the historical dialectic Hegel traced from the French Revolution to the Terror was echoed in the USSR and elsewhere.  Marcuse’s Reason and Revolution plays an even more central role in Anderson’s account as the first extended study of Marx’s deep engagement with Hegel in his formative period.  Marcuse, however, eventually succumbed to pessimism, despairing of the way capitalism has been nourished by the oppositional energies it evokes.  At this point Anderson turns to his mentor, Raya Dunayevskaya.

In Dunayevskaya’s view, Lukács’ accommodation to Stalinism and Marcuse’s pessimism are rooted in their misunderstanding of Hegel’s Absolute as a closed totality (112).  In her reading, endorsed by Anderson, Hegel’s “Absolute” correctly discerns “absolute negativity as new beginning,” revealing “a positive within the negative – a sense of powerful movements for human emancipation developing as determinate negations to ever-newer forms of domination of destruction” (148-49).

It can sometimes be difficult to discern this “positive within the negative.”  The rise of neoliberalism and the collapse of the Soviet Union convinced many there was no superior alternative to capitalism.  Many on the left rejected Marx in the name of a “postmodern” affirmation of difference, seeing Marx’s call for class unity in struggles against capital as an excuse to ignore other forms of oppression.  As Anderson rightly insists, this was an utter misreading.  Marx consistently and emphatically acknowledged that struggles against capital cannot be won unless oppressive beliefs and practices dividing those harmed by capital’s totalizing drive were overcome.  Creatively employing Hegel’s dialectical notion of “concrete universality,” Marx sought a “a concrete form of universality that immerses itself in and learns from the struggles of the working classes, but also those of people of color and of women, even if they are sometimes situated outside that working class per se” (9).

From this perspective Foucault’s vision of an endless alteration of power and resistance to power is profoundly inadequate, leaving no hope of substantive emancipation (183).  Anderson credits Derrida for recognizing that Marx remains a “specter” haunting contemporary capitalism. But from a dialectical standpoint Derrida’s “messianism without theology” amounts to an endless deferral of capital’s totalization, far short of emancipation from its totalizing drive (174).  Our moment in world history demands nothing less than the “positive negation” of capitalism by socialist humanism.

Anderson’s survey of Hegelian Marxism is not comprehensive.  For example, there is no discussion of interpretations of Capital as a systematic (rather than historical) dialectical ordering of the essential determinations of the capitalist mode of production.  Alternative versions of systematic dialectics have been developed by theorists associated with the Uno school of Japanese Marxism, adherents of the “New Reading of Marx” in Germany, and representatives of so-called “new dialectics” in England and the United States.  In my estimation Anderson also underplays how much Hegel got wrong in Marx’s view.  Hegel’s philosophy, Marx thought, was ultimately justified by an appeal to “Spirit,” a mystical alien power imposing its dictates on social life.  This is, I think, a fundamental misunderstanding, even if a productive one (what Marx mistakenly took to be Hegel’s concept of Spirit provided a way of thinking about capital, which is in fact an alien force imposing inhuman imperatives on social life). Nonetheless, as an overview of the most prominent line of Hegelian Marxist theory, however, this book is unsurpassed.

The exemplary clarity of the writing will make this collection of especially valuable to newcomers to Marxian theory, and to anyone curious about Hegel’s relationship to Marxism.  But the work’s greatest value surely lies with its powerful reminder that “The pull of the universal, of the emancipatory future, is always there, even if for the moment driven deep down, beneath the surface of society” (191)

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2 Comments

  1. Johnson Tunu

    Very doubtful that Stalin would’ve been significantly affected by Lenin’s extra tuition. He seemed bent on exploiting the Lenin-Trotsky revolution for his own personal ends. He did colossal harm to the international communist movement by failing to divorce it from neo-imperialist tendencies. He and the Nazi tyrant were busy carving up Europe into zones of domination, until the German man-eating monster launched a blitzkrieg attack on his ally of many years.

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  2. Ivor Moore

    Thanks for your review of a work that delves into a great subject, bringing so many perspectives together in such a profound way. I have become moved to begin my studies of dialectics from Hegel.

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