We Are the Dialectic: An Essay for Positive Politics

I. Between Revolt and Utopia: Revolution

0. The world is constant revolution, and the world is us. We are revolution, and yet making revolution may be the most difficult thing in the world.
The world revolts constantly against itself. The world strives constantly to be something else. But a thousand rebellions and a million dreams might still leave us waiting, wondering where we are going and where we have gone.

1. Revolt is here and now. It negates.

2. Utopia is beyond. It anticipates.

3. Revolution is the here-and-now that reaches beyond.
Revolution is the beyond that is among us, contained in us, and made by us.
Revolution is beyond anticipation and negation. Revolution posits.

4. Utopia is a goal, a horizon, a vanishing point. Utopia does not know where to begin. It looks always at the stars.
Revolt is a fist, a broken wall, a point that explodes. Revolt does not know where to end. It looks always at its feet.
Revolution is the path between our feet and the stars.
Revolt and utopia are moments. Revolution is a movement.

5. The theory of revolt is critical theory. It takes the here-and-now and shows why it must be abolished.

6. The theory of utopia is anticipatory theory. It takes the beyond and shows why it must be established.

7. Revolutionary theory is positive and positing theory. It seeks the path between the here-and-now and the beyond. Its object of study is not what is but what might be, not actuality but potentiality, not mere truth but value and beauty. It does not seek paths that already exist but paths that we can bring into existence. That is why revolutionary theory is both the most important kind of theory and the most difficult.

II. The Standpoint of the Proletariat: Positing Materialism

8. The first task of revolutionary theory is to understand the standpoint from which revolution is conceivable at all. This means understanding the social reality of any potential agents of revolution. Under what conditions can they rethink the world? Under what conditions can they change their conditions? This means reflecting on the meaning of materialism.

9. The wildest utopia exists first of all on earth in the living minds of women and of men.
The angriest revolt is not only a revolt “against” the world; it is also itself a world of people who are in revolt.
The beyond can only overcome the here-and-now if it is far and future; but it must be imagined here, now. The beyond can only be imagined in the here-and-now; but it is more than the here-and-now. It is not what is given but what is taken and remade.
The task of the revolutionary imagination is to think past the ideology of the epoch without forgetting that it, too, is of its epoch. The task, then, is to find and make those moments and places in this world from which we can see the next.
That is why revolutionary theory must be positing theory. Purely anticipatory theory does not understand the standpoint from which it sees the good world. Purely critical theory does not understand how it can see any world other than the world that it must overcome. Revolutionary theory must find the social standpoint from which to think beyond existing society.

10. A positive revolutionary theory would not mean less but more materialism than either critical or anticipatory theory gives us.
Purely anticipatory theory may anticipate the materiality of its utopia, but it does not see the materiality of the society from which it comes.
Purely critical theory critiques the material conditions that must be overcome, but it does not grasp the materiality of the overcoming. Its ideas, too, if they are any different from the dominant ideas of the epoch, appear a miracle that has escaped the logic of the system.
A positive revolutionary theory posits that all things are socially structured, including those things that transcend the dominant social structures of their day: revolutionary subjects and revolutionary ideas. The base and superstructure are equally material—they are socially structured and they socially (re)structure.

11. Positive revolutionary theory is not voluntarism, which supposes the omnipotence and unexplainable nature of the will. Positive revolutionary theory is also not determinism, which places all power and all explanation in things external to us. Between the subject and the object, there is society. Between voluntarism and determinism, there is self-determination, which must be found in the sociality of all potential objects and subjects.

12 The primary political concern of revolutionary theory should therefore be the social organization of the makers of revolution into structures which make possible the move from revolt to utopia. If we are to give a name to this collectivity of revolution-makers, we may call it “the proletariat.” But the existence of the proletariat cannot be taken for granted. It must be studied, debated, created.
Revolutionary theory is therefore fundamentally class analysis, but not in the usual sense of the term. For a positive revolutionary theory, a class is not a thing that can be mobilized or that can take hold of the means of production, ready-made. A class is neither above society nor below it. Its social structure and its social position are questions to be answered in the practice of revolution. They are the most important questions.
It is certainly inadequate to posit the actually-existing proletariat as the already-existing claimant to inherit the earth. But it is equally wrong to deny (as has become the fashion in some circles) the existence of a revolutionary subject. The proletariat is a subject that can come into being and which then must constantly remake its being: in unions, in parties, and in the thousand other ways that people form communities capable of changing the world. On this process of remaking hangs the fate of the world.

III. The Path of Revolution: Positive Dialectics

13. The second task of revolutionary theory is to determine the path that the makers of revolution might take. This means understanding the social movements that are possible and the changing social realities that make them possible. This means reflecting on the meaning of dialectics.

14. The dialectic is a tool for understanding the world as change, being as becoming, actuality as potentiality. Without dialectics, the subject appears all-powerful or all-powerless. The dialectic shows that freedom is a social relation between subject and object, not an absence of social relations. The dialectic shows that all things change, but also that all change comes out of the structure of things. All things that will be begin with what is. All things that are contain what they will be.

15. That is why dialectical theory has almost always been a theory of negation, against positivism, which is a theory of affirmation. Positivism affirms what is. All its predictions are the continuation of current “trends.” It can grasp only quantitative progress, not qualitative transformation. Positivism can only be a theory of reform, not of revolution. Dialectical theory, by contrast, negates what is. It seeks what might be different.
But as long as the dialectic remains purely negative, it remains beholden to what it negates. It can only conceive of the change produced most immediately by the negation of the here-and-now. It can only be a theory of revolt, not of revolution. Even the “negation of the negation” depends on what it negates. It has not freed itself from the domination that it revolts against.
Between affirmation and negation, there are the dialectics of positing.

16. The limits of negativity have made the dialectic seem a grand, inexorable movement of world history, in which particular social actors may participate, but whose outcome they can hardly influence. If the dialectic negates the totality of the present, it seems to lead only to a single, total future. All particulars seem only a means to some greater end. That is why some have given up on the dialectic altogether in favor of some primordial indeterminacy. But indeterminacy brings us no closer to self-determination than determinism does.
Positive dialectics are needed to show the multiple futures that might be posited, emerging from the present but not wholly determined by the present. Positive dialectics will reveal the multiple potentialities whose actualization depends on us. Not “the” dialectic, but many dialectics.

17. The positive dialectic reveals a new process of becoming that is grounded not only in an objective reality that is negated, nor only in a subjective reality that makes the world in its image, but also in a reality of social organization that is posited and posits, and through whose structures new realities are made.
Capital is one structure within which the proletariat exists, through which it makes a new reality. But capital is only the most powerful of many structures, each of which has its own dialectic. There are dialectics of the commodity and of the labor union, of the patriarchy and of the community, of the automobile and of the city square. They are not separate, as they appear in pluralist theory. But they are not unified in a single logic, as they appear in monist theory. Together, the many dialectics form the totality of human relations that we call “society.” But no single dialectic can contain the logic of all the others.
The positive dialectic is a dialectic of many dialectics.

18. Revolutionary theory does not accept the unidirectionality of the dialectic that appears at first glance. It seeks out those moments of the dialectic that may lead to the future we desire. It does not wait for the dialectic to take us to a promised land. It does not make promises; it sets paths.
Some of these paths lead straight through the center of capital, in whose contradictions the classic dialecticians told us to seek salvation, where all the alienated products of our labor would return to our collective hands. Some of these paths lead through the margins of this world, in those rare spaces of autonomy that are never absolutely autonomous, but in whose bright corners the radically new can begin to form.

19. The primary political goal of revolution should therefore not be the realization of a specific vision of socialism but the making-possible of never-ending realization. Socialism does not replace one fixed state of affairs with another. It unfixes all affairs so that they can be continually remade.
Revolutionary practice does not “support” or “oppose” any society, party, or state. It struggles wherever it is to expand the possibilities of creative overcoming.

20. In 1844, Marx wrote of his then-hero Feuerbach:
[His] great achievement is… opposing to the negation of the negation, which claims to be the absolute positive, the self-supporting positive, positively grounded in itself.1
But this “great achievement” has been greatly ignored. The dialectic has proclaimed its absoluteness, pretending that all the world moves through it; and the world, heedless, passes by. The dialectic has been standing motionless on its enormous head. It is time to uncover the social kernel within the rational shell, to place the dialectic on its “self-supporting” feet—and to make it walk.

21. “I am the State,” said the absolute monarch, who depended on no one for his power.
“I am the Truth,” said the absolute philosopher, who depended on nothing for his knowledge.
“But I,” said Feuerbach, “even in thinking and in being a philosopher, I am a man among men.”2
“And I,” said the positive dialectic, turning to the audience, “I am you.”


1. “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844,” in The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert C. Tucker (Norton: New York, 1978), p. 108, my emphasis.

2. Principles of the Philosophy of the Future (Hackett: Indianapolis, 1986 [1843]), pp. 71-2.

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