‘Marx’s Scientific Dialectics: A Methodological Treatise for a New Century’ reviewed by Seth Chaiklin

Reviewed by Seth Chaiklin

About the reviewer

Seth Chaiklin is Reader in Education, University of Bath, with a research focus on …


What general methodological principles does Karl Marx use to investigate and analyse societal life in its diverse manifestations? Explication of these principles is a main objective of Marx’s Scientific Dialectics. A second objective is to defend and promote these principles as legitimate for social research and sociological inquiry, and useful in formulating conceptual guidance for contemporary political action. These objectives reflect the book’s ‘central thesis … that Marx’s work provides us essential tools for understanding the world in which we live. And any effective action in this world is predicated on this understanding’ (260). These objectives are addressed by presenting a comprehensive account of Marx’s methodological principles, and by confronting and debunking inadequate accounts of Marx’s work.

The book is structured around the rhetorical premises of the ‘defend and promote’ objective – that ‘Marxism’ is ‘now a mystified catchword’ and that the problem is ‘how to mobilize Marx’s insights about capitalism in order to facilitate collective solutions to our social problems’ (279). The book seeks to ‘defend Marx’s way of thinking about the world from those critics who foist misplaced and discreditable critiques upon him’ (281), and ‘[e]ven within sympathetic academic audiences there remain other myths and suspicions that will not easily be overcome’ (276).

The main audience for this book is newcomers to and sceptics about Marx’s thought in general and the idea of dialectical analysis in particular. The book may also have some interest for those who know about methodological aspects of Marx’s work and want to see an attempt to present these ideas. And a few specialised interests might be satisfied (e.g., there is a good collection of examples of misinterpretations of Marx’s thought, and many references to methodological discussions in Marx’s letters). Philosophically-oriented readers, especially those familiar with Marx’s methodological approach (and the secondary literature on dialectical method), are not likely to get new philosophical or historical insights.

The first of the book’s three parts is concerned primarily with the ‘defend and promote’ objective. In the first chapter, Marx is introduced as a historical person, his work is contextualised in biographical perspective, and various ‘vulgar’ interpretations of his ideas are trotted out, and sent to the dust bin. Much of the chapter (titled ‘Problems Reading Marx’) is written from the perspective of orienting a first time reader of Marx to the problems that await in trying to acquire a coherent understanding of his methods. Four ‘moments of inquiry’ are proposed: historical materialism, political economy, communism, and dialectical method (6). The intent of the book is to show how these four moments are interconnected. In the second chapter, the reception of Marx’s ideas is discussed, especially in sociology. The chapter concludes that his intellectual approach should be recognised as part of, rather than in opposition to, sociological tradition because, as the chapter shows, Marx’s methodological interests share many theoretical, conceptual, and epistemological points with three ‘classical’ sociological theorists (Durkheim, Simmel, and Weber).

The book’s main objective is addressed in its second part, which focuses mainly on describing Marx’s approach to social scientific analysis (primarily his analysis of political economy). The strategy of presentation is to ‘break it [Marx’s thought] up through scientific categories’ rather than by ‘dialectical terms and concepts,’ because it will ‘discover and uncover his scientific dialectics’ (67). This yields four categories: ontological and epistemological assumptions; methods of analysis; concept formation; and descriptive and explanatory modelling. These categories, taken to reflect ‘scientific thinking’ (67), are addressed respectively in four chapters. As a rule, each of these chapters is organised around a set of topics or categories that often appear by assertion, without explanation or motivation. For example, the chapter on ontological and epistemological assumptions takes up internal relations and abstraction, naturalism, the centrality of labour, essentialism, and the necessity of dialectic. The chapter on analysis addresses the logic and order of investigation, methods of abstraction within structural and historical analysis (which draws largely on Ollman, 2003), dialectical and scientific method, and presentation of results. The chapter on concept formation includes appearance and essence, wholes and parts, time and space, form and content, necessity and contingency, history and structure. The chapter on modelling is largely concerned with presenting periods of historical development of political economy. The main tactic of presentation is to provide quotations from Marx and Engels (including many from Marx’s letters), along with quotations from secondary sources. Occasionally some comments are made about how issues in one chapter are related to another.

The third part returns to the ‘defend and promote’ objective. One chapter is devoted primarily to discussing Marx’s conceptions for a revolutionary programme and the development of communism, again grounded in textual citations, followed by a brief review of the reception of these ideas by Kautsky, Bernstein, Plekhanov, and post-1917 in the Soviet Union by Lenin, Stalin and post-Stalin. A main point is to warn against taking these historical developments as testing the validity of Marx’s analytic methods (255). The final chapter reflects on the results of the presentation, including a table that aims to show the interconnections between the dialectical method, historical materialism, political economy, and the communist project (273-4). The chapter remains largely suggestive (or inspirational) about the value of using Marx’s ideas as a platform for creating better conditions for human life (e.g., no illustrative analyses of contemporary or historical conditions are given).

On balance, the book comes across as an honest attempt to summarise and communicate the spirit of the method of analysis that appears in Marx’s mature work. Its presentation strategy through detailed citation from Marx’s (and others) texts – yields an historical account of Marx’s thought, rather than serving as an instruction manual, guidebook, or textbook. This is also consistent with the author’s intent to give an ‘archaeology’ of the ‘method of analysis that Marx arrives at in his mature work’ and show ‘the unity of inquiry in what Marx termed “scientific dialectics”’ (x-xi). It is not an argumentative volume. In general, it opposes a hagiographic reception of Marx’s ideas – albeit with some arguable ‘foot faults’ into that area. The secondary literature is mostly ventriloquized as part of communicating Marx’s ideas; it is rarely discussed except to criticise simple, inadequate presentations. The book does not pretend to provide a critical reconstruction, extension, or critique. It does not try to set Marx’s thought into a history of ideas, or engage with other scholarship about Marx’s dialectic. For example, no relevant East European sources are discussed (e.g., Ilyenkov and Kosik do not appear; Lukács gets only a few words). German sources are not really used (Adorno and Horkheimer do not appear at all; Marcuse and Habermas have cameo appearances in the introduction). Hegel appears primarily as a placeholder for idealism and a foil for criticism in quotes from Marx.

From a pedagogical point of view, it is a daunting (and contradictory) task that confronts any writer who wants to ‘introduce’ dialectical methods with sufficient clarity and detail so that an interested reader can continue to use these ideas independently and productively. From this point of view, one must at least welcome yet another attempt to do so, especially given ongoing interest among some social scientists, and a dearth of social science research methodology books that have a clear dialectical focus. Unfortunately the present volume is not a reliable guide for those who do not already have a grasp of key ideas in Marx’s analytic approach.

There are several interrelated reasons for this conclusion. First, although this volume notes that political economy is a specific form of dialectics, this point is largely intertwined with the presention of political economy, and this makes it difficult to recognise the general ideas of dialectics that are expressed in the particular issues of political economy. Second, the communication of key ideas is too reliant on quotes from Marx. Often there is not adequate explanation of the significance of the quotes, and no attempt to stand back and summarise the conceptual spirit of these ideas. Third, the key chapters do not explain adequately how the topics they address were chosen, or how they are related to each other. As a result, many of the categories come across as imposed, rather than arising from a conceptual position (even while the volume is explaining that Marx is opposed to imposed categories). Fourth, most of the ideas are summarised at the end of the key chapters in tables, diagrams and flow charts. This mode of presentation often seemed to destroy or distort the ideas being communicated (e.g., a tendency to highlight form, rather than focus on the importance of internal relations). Fifth, the author adopts Ollman’s expression that one must ‘piece together’ components in a relationship (135). This expression is used so frequently (127, 191, 196, 199), that one starts to doubt whether the communicative intent is animated by an understanding of dialectic as a movement driven by resolution of contradictions in internal relations. Finally, rather than recognising that dialectical methods are scientific according to dialectical standards, the volume (perhaps falling back to the ‘defend and promote’ objective) tries to show that Marx is also using the same kinds of scientific methods as a traditional empiricist philosophy of science. But even more problematic, the strategy often used to argue that Marx’s work is ‘scientific’ draws on (superficial) formal analogies as well as on ontological and epistemological assumptions that should be rejected in a dialectical approach. For example, a textbook definition of statistical correlation is quoted (136) followed by a claim that Marx ‘was familiar’ with this concept (137) – supported by a quote from a 1865 letter in which Marx refers to a book on Correlation of Physical Forces. This is remarkably prescient given that the idea of statistical correlation was first expressed in the late 1880s, and its mathematical formulation in the late 1890s. Or ‘It is standard in science to isolate and examine the effects of variables on one another’ (126). This assertion is followed by examples in which Marx’s work is interpreted as looking for causal relations in multiple variables, and therefore an example of ‘scientific thinking’ – though again by the superficial analogy that attention to conceptual relations is the same as looking for empirical correlations. This atomistic perspective (i.e., of correlation between variables) is precisely what the dialectical tradition is trying to overcome. See Thalos (2011) for a useful discussion of the difference between an atomistic and systemic fundamentality.

The inadequacy of the present volume raises some profound philosophical challenges for those interested in Marxism and philosophy. Should this book be understood as an expression of the will to create a living tradition of dialectical analysis? Or as one more description of an unchanged world, reflecting a technical division of academic labour that keeps dialectics as a philosophical curiosity separated from scientific work? Is it hopeless task to communicate scientific dialectics in textual form? Or should this volume be viewed as a preliminary moment in the development of self-consciousness about dialectical methods? Must dialectics first be developed more widely in practice, before it can be communicated textually? In other words, can such a book only be written successfully after the owl of Minerva has flown, and dialectical methods are already part of ‘typical’ work in the social sciences? Or can the negation of these questions be achieved in other ways?

1 July 2011


  • Ollman, B. 2003 Dance of the dialectic: Steps in Marx’s method Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
  • Thalos, M. 2011 ). `Two conceptions of fundamentality’. Philosophy of the Social Sciences 41, 151-77.

One comment

  1. Overall, I found this book difficult to read. Frankly, the style of writing, like many Marxists, favors the “more complicated words is better” approach. Whether style is intented to mystify or confuse, the bottom line result is sheer frustration.

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