Dialectical Critical Realism: 3 – Underwriting Marx

In this third blog on dialectical critical realism I return to Bhaskar’s writings on Marx, once more drawing liberally on Creaven and to a lesser extent Norrie. Bhaskar agrees with much of what Marx has to say about Hegel. Crucially, Marx’s materialist dialectics, unlike Hegel’s idealistic dialectics, does not dissolve objective dialectical contradictions into subjective logical contradictions. Materialistic dialectical contradictions such as those identified by Marx describe (dialectical), but do not suffer from (logical) contradictions. Creaven summarizes:

‘the practical resolution of the contradiction here is the non-preservative transformative negation of the ground of the internally relational but ‘tendentially mutually exclusive’ totality of which they are a part, this requiring the intervention of practical human agency in the social and material worlds.’

In Bhaskar’s view Marx’s critique of Hegel opens up the possibility of a ‘materialist diffraction of dialectic’: that is, ‘the articulation of a pluriform dialectic, infolding at various levels of conceptual thought and objective reality’ (Creaven). According to Bhaskar, what he terms the ‘four levels’ of dialectical critical realism are ‘perhaps best seen as four dimensions of this diffracted dialectic, each with its own distinctive concepts, scientific applications, and philosophical problems’ (Bhaskar). Bhaskar’s four levels of dialectical critical realism are outlined and discussed later in this blog..

Unsurprisingly, Bhaskar’s ‘pluriform’ dialectic is more complex than anything to be found in Marx or in other of his disciples and interpreters. Creaven usefully offers an example of (unreconstructed) Marxian dialectics at work. Consider, he says, Marx and Engels’ ‘dialectic of labour’. There is more than an echo of Hegel here. On the one hand, Marx contends that the relationship between humans and their environment must be seen as a contradictory totality , a unity of opposites:

‘The unity is derived from the fact that nature is the ‘inorganic body’ of human thought and action, with which human beings ‘must remain in continual interchange’ if they ‘are not to die’, humanity being ‘a part of nature.’ The opposition is derived from the fact that, although human consciousness is a product of nature, it is nonetheless a qualitatively distinct part of nature, by virtue of its power to reflect upon and transform nature in the service of human needs, and because it must still encounter the world as an objective power, as a set of circumstances which confront and constrain thought and action from without’.

On the other hand, this contradictory totality, which constitutes the relationship between human subjects and objective conditions, is a dynamic and developing one. Creaven again:

‘This is because collaborative labour on the material world, in the service of human needs and interests, mediates the two poles, bringing thought into closer correspondence with its objects, combining materiality and consciousness as conscious ‘practice’, thereby transcending, without harmonizing, the abstract polarities represented by both sides of this existential contradiction’.

So what does Bhaskar add (and does it warrant all this arduous mental labour)? In his Dialectic: the Pulse of Freedom, Bhaskar claims that his philosophical under-labouring is indispensable to Marxian social theory and emancipatory socialist politics. So, now we return to his four levels of dialectical critical realism.

We recounted in the previous blog Bhaskar’s reworking of Hegel’s dialectic via the concepts of non-identity, negativity, totality and transformative agency. These four concepts are mapped onto Bhaskar’s four levels of dialectical critical realism. What he dubs the first comment (1M) can be seen as corresponding to the core notions of basic critical realism (e.g. stratification, emergence, the non-identity of thought and being, system openness etc).

The second edge (2E) ‘is the abode of absence – and, most generally, negativity’ (Bhaskar). This involves a ‘remodelling’ of the core notions of 1M ‘in the light of dialectical categories such as negativity, negation, becoming, contradiction, process, development and decline, mediation and reciprocity’ (Bhaskar). 2E imparts dynamism to basic critical realism, allowing for processes of change to be situated spatially and temporally.

The third level (3L) corresponds to totality (and ‘totalising motifs’). Bhaskar maintains that the ‘internal and intrinsic connectedness of phenomena’ deducible from the ‘dialecticisation’ of 1M at 2E reveals the need for totalising motifs that can theorize totality … and constellationality.

This gives rise to the fourth dimension (4D): this is ‘the zone of transformative agency’, ‘the unity of theory and practice in practice’ (Bhaskar). This is ‘the process of human practical engagement with the world, in society and nature, which also mediates the poles of consciousness and being, bringing thought into a ‘lived relation’ with the world, thereby transcending (though without harmonizing) the abstract polarities represented by subject and object’ (Creaven). Bhaskar counters extant ‘erroneous’ interpretations of this ‘zone’ (e.g. physicalism, idealism, dualism, reification, fetishism, commodification). He also offers the conceptual means of their resolution, ‘which hinges on synchronous emergent powers materialism at the level of subject and the dialectic of structure and agency at the level of society’ (Creaven).

The interface of 3L and 4D can also be presented as the ‘moment’ of ‘dialectical critical naturalism’. or the theorization of society as unity-in-difference, and maps on to Bhaskar’s transformational model of social action. This is, or at least ought to be in my view, of special interest to sociologists. Creaven writes:

‘According to Bhaskar’s transformational model of social action, social forms (institutions, roles, positions, belief-systems, etc) are legitimate objects of scientific knowledge, because they are autonomous of the human agents that reproduce them through their activity, and because they possess their own causal efficacy. These properties (autonomy and causality) secure the objects of the social sciences as ‘real’. This autonomy of social forms does not consist of activity-independence, but rather of their ‘anteriority’ or pre-existence to any specific passage of human interaction across time and space.’

It will be remembered that for Bhaskar human agents do not create society, but always find it ready-made: they reproduce or transform it through their interaction.  This is important enough to warrant an extensive quotation from Bhaskar:

‘Society is both the ever-present condition (material cause) and the continually reproduced outcome of human agency … Society … provides necessary conditions for intentional human action, and intentional human action is a necessary condition for it. Society is only present in human action, but human action always expresses and utilizes some or other social form … People do not create society. For it always pre-exists them and is a necessary condition fort their activity. Rather, society must be regarded as an ensemble of structures, practices and conventions which individuals reproduce or transform, but which would not exist unless they did so. Society does not exist independently of human activity (the error of reification). But it is not the product of it (the error of voluntarism). 

Social structures are conceived here as ‘enabling’, not just constraining or coercive. They are not reducible to their effects, but they only present through them. For Bhaskar, the transformational model of social action outperforms, sees off, the individualism of Weber, the collectivism of Durkheim and the phenomenology of Berger. The transformational model of social action goes hand in hand with a relational – rather than individualist, collectivist or interactionist – conception of society. So sociologists are charged with investigating social order as a ‘position-practice system’.


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