Galvano Della Volpe on E. V. Ilyenkov

31 Cf. the conclusion of the entry ‘Dialectics’ in the Grosse Sowjet Enzyklopädie, Berlin, 1953: ‘The logical method of Marx in his critique of political economy ... was but the historical method, only shorn of the historical form [i.e. chronological sequence] and of any unsettling elements of chance [i.e. irrationality].’ To which it should nevertheless be added that the point here is precisely to reconcile the substantially historical character of the economic categories (in this case) and their nonchronological character, or ideality, or rationality—without, that is, confusing Marx’s method with Hegel’s, which is entirely too bereft of ‘unsettling’ historical ‘elements of chance’, conjured away through a priori, or preconceived, rationality, despite its claim to be a historical dialectical method. In short, it is important to realize that Marx’s reasoned history, to use Schumpeter’s expression, differs from Hegel’s in two respects. 1. In the synthesis, or concept, constituted, for example, by the quite modern abstraction ‘labour tout court’ or ‘capital’, the various previous historical characteristics of labour or capital become elements of the concept and are therefore transvalued, assuming a unitary or general significance through which they lose their particularist, purely historical‑chronological or analytic significance, but without losing their determinateness, or significant analytic character, which is one with their historic necessity (since the precedents are not imaginary). The synthesis is therefore also analysis. 2. These preceding characteristics of labour or capital become elements of a concept whose formation can be generated only by the historically latest, or present, character (of labour or capital), recognized as such; in other words, from their being posited as problems (the problematic of labour as an abstraction belonging to the essence of capitalism, as illustrated by Sweezy in note 30, above, or of capital, which has to be explained ‘before’ landed property). The (chronological) precedents are thus transformed into logical‑historical) antecedents, or preconditions of the consequents, and thereby fall into a genuinely historical‑dialectical and progressive order (‘opposite’ to the chronological sequence). This is a rational order that constitutes precisely the determinate abstraction described above, the concept‑mean. This is a true concrete concept because, unlike Hegel’s, it does not sacrifice the analysis for the synthesis, but reconciles them by bringing together the ideality and historical character of the categories. There is little notion of these problems in ‘Das Besondere im Lichte des dialektischen Materialismus’ (in Deutsche Zeitschrift für Philosophie, 1955, no. 2, pp. 157ff.), by Lukács, who read Marx’s 1857 introduction without the key of the materialist critique of a priori reasoning (contained, principally, in the ‘Critique of Hegel’s Doctrine of the State’). The work of the Soviet philosopher E.V. llyenkov is marked by the same deficiency (see note 33 below).

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33 It is important, of course, to bear in mind not only this intellectual aspect of the Leninist criterion of ‘practice’ as a technical criterion (closing the methodological circle concrete‑abstract‑concrete), but also its indissociable moral aspect, emphasized by Sweezy in the following penetrating summation of the method of the critique of political economy: ‘To the Marxist, on the other hand, the specific historical (i.e. transitory) character of capitalism is a major premise. It is by virtue of this fact that the Marxist is able, so to speak, to stand outside the system and criticize it as a whole. Moreover, since human action is itself responsible for the changes which the system is undergoing and will undergo, a critical attitude is not only intellectually possible, but it is also morally significant—as, for example, a critical attitude toward the solar system, whatever its shortcomings, would not be—and, last but not least, practically important.’ (The Theory of Capitalist Development, p. 22.) To this we should add Togliatti’s observations (note 27 above) about the relation science‑materialism­-(proletarian) revolution. And, of course, Marx’s highly fruitful methodological declaration in the second thesis on Feuerbach (note 22) must never be forgotten. This problem of the Leninist criterion of ‘practice’ is touched on only indirectly in the rather interesting essay ‘Dialectic of the Abstract and the Concrete in Scientific Knowledge’, by E.V. Ilyenkov (Voprosi filosofii, 1955, no. 1, translated in Critica economica, June 1955 [the quotations that follow have been translated from the Italian version].) The essay is devoted primarily to the 1857 introduction and its relation to some of the key concepts of Capital. Ilyenkov recognizes that ‘analysis and synthesis, deduction and induction coincide organically here’, but he also speaks of non‑scientific abstraction as ‘empty’—this even though he has previously admitted that ‘Hegel himself, although he imagines that his analysis of law and property, for example, begins from absolutely rational principles.... actually arrives at these principles through the current bourgeois representations of his epoch’. On the other hand, Ilyenkov understands that ‘the “universality” of the concept is not ... the formal definition of the concept, but the logical characterization of its concept’ and that ‘the aspiration to discover absolutely simple elements common to every object, the first building‑blocks of the edifice, in an attempt thereby to arrive at the comprehension of real objects, is foreign to the [materialist] dialect[[ic—RD]]’. Also: ‘when one says that to move from the abstract to the concrete means to rise from the simple to the complex, or more precisely from comprehension of the simple to comprehension of the complex, one has in mind the simplest element of a determinate object and not of any object whatever.’ He also understands that ‘the theory of knowledge, dialectical materialist logic, unlike Locke’s gnoseology, does not centre its attention on the single act of generalization independent of the general course of the logical process, but considers it precisely as a moment, a step, a degree in this process’. Finally, he grasps that the one‑sided analytical method of classical bourgeois economics, i.e. ‘the method that consciously proposes to grasp the “constituent parts” of which the object consists, cannot, by its very nature, resolve another, no less important aspect of scientific inquiry: it cannot explain why these “constituent parts” are conjoined as they are and not in any other way’. Nevertheless, things would be much clearer if Ilyenkov recognized explicitly that the scientific abstraction is a historical abstraction and that the ‘general course of the logical process’ of which the abstraction is not independent is the course of history itself (although not the mere historical-chronological course). It is this that explains why the ‘constituent parts’ are conjoined in one way and not in another, and how we can avoid those abstractions ‘in which the specific character of capitalism vanishes’. On the 1857 introduction, see Lucio Colletti, ‘Il metodo dell’economia politica’, in Critica economica, June 1954. Alessandro Mazzone’s article in Aut-aut, November 1955, is also interesting as far as the problem of the ‘moral sciences’ is concerned.

SOURCE: Della Volpe, Galvano. Logic as a Positive Science, translated by Jon Rothschild (London: NLB, 1980), chapter IV: Tauto-Heterological Identity and the Scientific Dialectic, footnotes 31 & 33, pp. 193-4f, 196-7f. (Original: Logica come scienza positiva, 1969.)

See also:

Della Volpe, Galvano. “Dialettica Scientifica e Teoria del Valore,” Preface to E. V. Il’enkov, La Dialettica dell’astratto e del concreto nel Capitale di Marx. Milano, 1961.

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