We are trained how to think from the moment we are born. Then, we carry and exercise this training constantly, against every minute decision and for life altering massive choices alike, as we navigate the complexities and dullness of being alive in the world. Our philosophical method of thinking is so ingrained, so hegemonic, that we don’t even recognize it as a method. But it is.

The purpose of this class is to identify and desiccate the bourgeois method of “formal logic,” which searches for the cause of events in the direct motivations of individuals, that we have been immersed and indoctrinated in, and to replace it with a revolutionary method that asserts, in Hegel’s words, that “every cause has a cause.” A famous quote from Black revolutionary feminist Audre Lorde is “the master’s tools will not dismantle the master’s house,” and while this can be taken to refer to any administrative apparatus of the capitalist state, it is also useful to think of here: thinking differently is necessary to being differently, and to imagining and building different worlds.

We are not the first group to grapple with philosophical methods. Marxism is nothing if it is not an ontology: a method of thought, understanding, and action that radically refuses bourgeois logic systems. Indigenous decolonization, too, is an ontological project. Coercive colonial domination to the new settler colonial normal was transitioned through the work of attacking Indigenous ways of thinking and being, with the goal of terminating Indigenous existence so that Canada’s dominion would rule unchallenged. Indigenous struggle is only decolonizing if it asserts Indigenous knowledge and ways of being. Without method, Indigenous political demands and cultural expression can be incorporated and assimilated into Canadian multiculturalism.

What we are presenting here is inspired by a reading series developed half a century ago by the Sojourner Truth Organization. STO was a revolutionary Marxist group based in the US rust belt in the 1970s that was invested in the self-organization of the working class. They developed “How to Think” to train their members in dialectical methods of thinking. This series has been adopted by many revolutionary groups since then in order to tackle the challenge of breaking from bourgeois, formal logic and adopt dialectical methods in organizational spaces and revolutionary practice.

In the introduction to their “How to Think” series, the Sojourner Truth Organization warns against taking any shortcuts or adopting a half-way approach. Their class was intensive. Here’s their description from their introduction:

We have found that thirty to sixty days of student/teacher preparation followed by five days and evenings of uninterrupted discussion classes is required to accomplish satisfactorily the aims of this program. It poses serious problems to a small organization, most of whose members are workers and all of whom are engaged in political work. Under such circumstances the classes cannot succeed unless the political decisions personal and organizational—are taken seriously and firmly, even ruthlessly, enforced. During the pre-class period, participants must be sufficiently free from other political obligations to concentrate on study; for the classes themselves, held in rural retreats, people often have to spend most of their annual vacation time. Comrades not involved in the same session have to pick up the slack in political work and personal responsibility.

Despite the warning, we are deciding to take a shortcut. We have our own problems. STO members were already committed Marxists and were familiar with some basic problems of Marxism and the dialectical method. Our members not only are not entering as Marxists: we are not required to be Marxists, and do not have to become Marxists as an expectation of the group. In the 1970s, even novice activists had some familiarity with the idea of dialectics. That’s not the case now either. So we’re opting for an introduction to the introduction of the dialectical method, which we’re calling “encountering dialectics.”

What we are presenting here is inspired by the STO class series, and uses their readings as a jumping-off point. But it differs in two important ways: First, we are abridging their classes to start with because we are doing this series with weekly evening classes not with an intensive week together, and we are just abridging just the first half of the 9 sections – the sections that can truly be considered the fundamentals. The assumption here is that, if this works for our members, we’ll continue with a part 2 when we’re next able.

And secondly, the STO classes are strictly Marxist and reckon with literature from the Marxist cannon alone. We have discussed dialectics briefly and initially and wondered whether dialectics are properly organic to the Marxist tradition alone, or if the approximate dialectical method is also to be found in Indigenous ways of thinking. We are including readings from Indigenous and anti-colonial thinkers so that we can begin asking whether dialectics are a European tradition or if this method of thinking can be a bridge between Indigenous and Marxist roads of struggle. This COS alone is insufficient for answering this question. Rather, engaging this question is a long-term process and we propose thinking of using this COS as a stepping stone towards engaging the STO’s workshop and participate in the Indigenous ways of knowing COS together.

We are not, however, simplifying or abbreviating the STO classes. These are challenging sets of readings and will be more demanding time-wise, and in terms of vocabulary and density of ideas than most COS discussion classes. But there’s no way around that without simplifying the work. We are not aiming to give students in these classes a distant glimpse at a set of ideas, we are looking to unsettle and disrupt the ways we think and to introduce new ways to grapple with the problems of being and of revolutionary work.

Most of the readings in this package are taken from the STO classes. We have taken some out, and those are not marked, but you can compare with the original here. Those that we have added-in are marked with an [AAD] at the end. The same is true of the discussion questions. The preambles each week are marked Sojourner Truth Organization and Alliance Against Displacement accordingly.

Although we are not using the STO classes exactly, we think we share with them the goals and purpose of this discussion series, which they summarize like this:

We begin with Lenin’s observation to Inessa Armmand: “People for the most part (99 percent of the bourgeoisie, 98 percent of the liquidators, about 60-70 percent of the Bolsheviks) don’t know how to think, they only learn words by heart.” [35:131 Lenin’s emphasis] It is our purpose in this study program to impart an ability to evaluate political situations critically and to decide independently on proper courses of action. Our aim is to elevate the effectiveness of our political work by elevating the quality of our “product.”

The skills of which we speak are theoretical, but theoretical in the broadest sense. We are not concerned here with abilities to operate an offset press or marshal a picket line, but we are concerned with the organization and presentation of criticism, whether of strategy, general tactics, or issue-oriented practical work. Our conception of criticism does not rest on the application of general rules and abstract principles, but on mastering the approach summarized by Lenin: “Dialectics is the teaching which shows how Opposites can be and how they happen to be (how they become) identical,—under what conditions they are identical, becoming transformed into one another,—why the human mind should grasp these opposites not as dead, rigid, but as living, conditional, mobile, becoming transformed into one another.” [38:109]

Onwards!

Class 1: Base and superstructure in motion

Sojourner Truth Organization: This part includes two very well-known selections from the writings of Marx and Engels, and several that are less familiar. One might say that the “Theses on Feuerbach” represent the “voluntarist,” the “Hegelian,” the “dialectical” side of Marxism, while the “Preface” shows the “determinist,” the “scientific,” the “materialist” side. We have included these together to show, from the beginning of the course, the roots in Marx’s writings of two diverging trends in Marxist thought, and to demonstrate from the outset the dangers of failing to consider Marx’s writings as a totality. Engels’ letters represent his conscious attempt to correct what was a one-sidedness in the socialist movement of his day.

Alliance Against Displacement: First, a note on why we have added to this selection of fundamentals with works by followers of Marx, and one fairly contemporary and academic one at that. These readings are focused on what Stuart Hall calls the metaphor of base and superstructure. In his preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Marx argues that, although their class position within a capitalist relations of production frames the so-called economic “base” of society and their social lives, it is in the realm of “ideology” where people “become conscious of this conflict and fight it out.” The “preface” is known better for establishing the base/superstructure metaphor to explain historical materialist analysis of society, which has been taken rigidly at times – including by Engels, who refers to it here as, “in the final analysis,” being all about the economy as all-powerful.

The theorists we are adding here, Gramsci and Hall, have focused on ‘hegemony,” a fluid and always moving problem of coercive force (for some groups) and consensual participation in capitalist rule (for others) as a means of explaining social power beyond a binarized base/superstructure. Nevertheless, they both draw back to the “preface” even as they blur the lines between base/superstructure and question how far the “determining” power of base can go. We hope that including these critiques and elaborations of Marx’s theory of how capitalist state and society is structured will make it easier to grapple with the nuances of the original texts.

Readings

  • Karl Marx, “Preface” to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy
  • Karl Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach”
  • Frederick Engels, Letter to Bloch (September 21, 1890), MESW: 692-3; Letter to Schmidt (October 27, 1890), MESW: 694-9
  • Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks, Vol. 2, Section 15 “Croce and Marx,” and Section 45 “Structures and Superstructures.” [AAD]
  • Stuart Hall, “The Problem of Ideology: Marxism without Guarantees,” Journal of Communication Inquiry 10, no. 2 (June 1, 1986): 42. [AAD]

Discussion Questions

  • Marx states that social existence determines the consciousness of people. What is meant by social existence? How are the circumstances of social existence changed?
  • What is the conflict that leads to social revolution? How does it develop under capitalism?
  • The Guardian and the Weather Underground state that the fundamental contradiction of modem capitalism is that between the proletariat (“working class as a whole”) and the capitalists (“imperialist bourgeoisie”). Prairie Fire says it is “the contradiction between social production and private appropriation.” Who is right? Why?
  • Is Engels’ treatment of the relationship between the economic base and the political superstructure of society, as expressed in his letters to Bloch and Schmidt, adequate?
  • Gramsci argues that “common sense” is an ideology that have acquired “fanatical granite solidity,” becoming a “material force.” Does Gramsci’s emphasis change the way you understand Marx’s materialism? Is it consistent with Engels’ description of the difference between “base and superstructure”? [AAD]
  • Stuart Hall argues that hegemony is neither total power nor the total rise of a social group to power, but “the process by which a historical bloc of social forces is constructed and the ascendancy of that bloc secured.” Consider the limitations of the “base and superstructure” metaphor to understand and anticipate this process. [AAD]
Class 1 Reading Package

Class 2: The Marxist view of change

Sojourner Truth Organization: These readings constitute essential statements of Marxist dialectics, yet nearly every attempt to popularize them winds up grossly falsifying them (as in the writings of Mao Tse-tung, Stalin, and Maurice Cornforth).

This whole problem will be developed later; here we will give one illustration. The most widely used introductory textbook for studying Marxist “philosophy” is Maurice Cornforth’s Materialism and the Dialectical Method. Cornforth writes, “At bottom, idealism is religion, theology. ‘Idealism is clericalism,’ wrote Lenin. All idealism is a continuation of the religious approach to questions, even though particular idealist theories have shed their religious skin. Idealism is inseparable from superstition, belief in the supernatural, the mysterious and unknowable.” [page 18]

Contrast that statement with the full Lenin citation from which Cornforth drew his fragment: “Philosophical idealism is only nonsense from the standpoint of crude, simple, metaphysical materialism. From the standpoint of dialectical materialism, on the other hand, philosophical idealism is a one-sided, exaggerated, uberschwengliches [over-extended] (Dietzgen) development (inflation, distention) of one of the features, aspects, facets of knowledge into an absolute, divorced from matter, from nature, apotheosised. Idealism is clerical obscurantism. True. But philosophical idealism is (“more correctly” and “in addition”) a road to clerical obscurantism through one of the shades of the infinitely complex knowledge (dialectical) of man.” [38:361 Lenin’s emphasis]

Does not Lenin say exactly the opposite of what Cornforth concludes? This illustrates a potentially paralyzing problem of Marxist study. If a beginner studies easy-to-read popular pamphlets in order to learn what Marxism is, they may learn only much later (if ever) of this type of deception. It may be more difficult to read the original presentations of these ideas, but it is the only certain way to eliminate counterfeit Marxism.

Alliance Against Displacement: To this selection of classical descriptions of dialectics, we have added two more contemporary additions: we have replaced Lenin’s short note on the “trade unions question” in the Soviet Union with CLR James’ more thorough discussion of the problem faced by the question of whether independent trade unions should continue to exist in the worker’s state. This makes clear that the political problem underlying the debate was about the dialectical view of change.

Secondly, and more innovatively, we have included audio recordings of two poems by Kamau Brathwaite, and an article about Brathwaite’s poetry of “tidalectics.” In his poetry, Brathwaite, a Carribbean poet, evokes the feeling of the movement of dialectics. Formal, bourgeois logic moves in a single direction, in a straight line, from cause to effect. Dialectics, Brathwaite argues, moves not in a straight line, and not either in a whirlwind convergence where opposites collide to create something brand new, but circulate like the tides. Brathwaite’s poetics suggest that dialectics are not European, not about discovery and dominance, but may represent returns to pre-capitalist forms of non-antagonistic economies and being.

Readings

  • Karl Marx, Grundrisse: 88-94, 99-102, 450-454, 461-463.
  • GWF Hegel, Science of Logic, A. V. Miller, trans. (London: Allen & Unwin, 1969; New York: Humanities Press, 1976), pages 44-59
  • GWF Hegel, The Phenomenology of Mind, J. B. Baillie, trans. (New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1967), pages 80-84
  • VI Lenin, “On The Question of Dialectics,” 38: 357-61
  • VI Lenin, “Elements of Dialectics,” 38: 220-2
  • CLR James, “Lenin and the trade union debate in Russia, part 1.” From CLR James, You Don’t Play with Revolution, 161-186. [AAD]
  • CLR James, excerpts from Notes on Dialectics
  • Karl Marx, Capital, Volume I (New York: International Publishers, 1967, New World edition), pages 177-8
  • T Mars McDougall, “The Water is Waiting: Water, Tidalectics, and Materiality,” Liquid Blackness, vol 3 no 6 [AAD]
  • Kamau Brathwaite, “Twist” and “Caliban” (recordings of his poems that use his concept of “Tidalectics”) [AAD]
  • Re-read: Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach” from Class 1.

Appendix: Glossary of Marx’s Grundrisse and of Hegel’s language

Discussion Questions

  • What is the relationship between philosophical idealism and dialectical materialism? Between dialectical materialism and materialism? How does Marx characterize Feuerbach’s philosophical errors in the Theses?
  • What is the essence of dialectics? How can it be tested?
  • Why is it difficult to simplify the study of dialectics?
  • Brathwaite’s concept of “tidalectics” has one core difference with
  • the dialectics of Hegel and Marx: rather than seeing the synthesis of opposites as producing a new phenomenon, Braithwaite sees the collision as something more like a wave crashing out of a tidal flow. Brathwaite’s idea is circular and “iterative” rather than about discovery, which he interprets in Marx as an imprint of european enlightenment thought. Listen to the rhythms and repetition in Brathwaite’s poetry and think about this idea alongside these classical discussions of dialectics. Are these ideas compatible or is there a problem with this suggestion? [AAD]
  • Lenin connected the “betrayal” of the Second International to the new stage reached by capitalism. Would the failure of the Communist parties after 60 years to establish socialism in any country constitute conclusive evidence of another change in historical stages? (Debate over the definition of socialism is not the intended focus of this question, although it obviously must be considered part of the discussion.)
  • Is the U.S. working class backward? Explain your answer.
  • What is meant by “negation of the negation”? Give examples. Is this a conservative or a revolutionary concept?
  • Find applications of Lenin’s elements of dialectics in the Grundrisse passages. Give particular attention to any examples of the “negation of the negation.”
Class 2 Reading Package

Class 3: From Hegel to Marx

Sojourner Truth Organization: Hegel sees a duality in each level of self‐consciousness. Each level of consciousness contains its own opposite. He carries this argument through to its most extreme statement: each self‐consciousness can only fully emerge through a life and death struggle: “it is solely by risking life that freedom is obtained.” [page 233] When Hegel differentiates the master and the bondsman it becomes clear that the master’s “independent existence” and “power” are not equivalent to freedom. The bondsman’s “negative attitude,” the result of his “self‐consciousness in a broad sense” rooted in participation in productive labor, becomes the condition for genuine freedom.

“But just as lordship showed its essential nature to be the reverse of what it wants to be, so, too, bondage will, when completed, pass into the opposite of what it immediately is: being a consciousness repressed within itself, it will enter into itself, and change round into real and true independence.” [page 237] (Gramsci has carried this further still: “the more an individual is compelled to defend his own immediate physical existence, the more will he uphold and identify with the highest values of civilization and humanity, in all their complexity.” [​Prison Notebooks, ​page 170]

Marx has called Hegel’s ​Phenomenology “​ the true point of origin and the secret of Hegelian philosophy.” [​Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1​844, page 136] Engels referred to it as “a parallel of the embryology and paleontology of the mind, a development of the individual consciousness through its different stages through which the consciousness of man has passed in the course of history.” [​Ludwig Feuerbach, page 14] Since Engels wrote this very late in life, and after Marx had died, it is worth remembering when one is told that Marxism is a complete rejection of Hegel.

Alliance Against Displacement​: This week’s readings continue on the first week’s theme of defining dialectics – but this week’s work is more difficult. The questions here are about the historical development of philosophy. What made Marx’s thought different from those before is a premise underlying this discussion. Marx was a student of Hegel’s, and in his early life he was part of the “Young Hegelian” group. His breaking point was about the role and possibility of self-activity. Marx agrees with Hegel about the motion of the dialectic, as opposites in conflict creating transformative change, but differs about the motive force of each of these opposing energies. Hegel sees the origin of being as ​the ideal ​(god) and Marx sees it as the total, historical energy of being, which contains innumerable contradictions – including each person and every activity. Marx says philosophers themselves are also part of these contradictory forces. A founding notion of Marx’s thought, included in the first class in his “Theses on Feuerbach” is that previous philosophers only contemplated the world, the purpose of philosophy must be to change it. These readings look closely that that moment of transformation.

Readings

  • GWF Hegel, ​Phenomenology of Mind, pages 228‐40
  • David Brion Davis, ​The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, 1770‐1823 ​(Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1975), pages 557‐64 (especially from page 66 onwards)
  • Karl Marx, ​Capital I​: 19‐20
  • Karl Marx, ​Collected Works 3​ : 331‐3 (letter from Marx to Engels, Jan 14, 1858)
  • George Lichtheim, Introduction to Hegel’s ​Phenomenology of Mind, p​ ages xxv‐xxx
  • VI Lenin, “Conspectus of Hegel’s ​Science of Logic​,” from Lenin’s Philosophical Notebooks.
  • Antonio Gramsci, ​Prison Notebooks (New York: International Publishers, 1971), pages 345‐6, 444‐8

Discussion Questions

  • In the conflict between master and slave described by Hegel, at what points can each be described as “class conscious”?
  • “My dialectic method is not only different from the Hegelian, but is its direct opposite. To Hegel, the life‐process of the human brain, ​i.e., t​ he process of thinking, which, under the name of “the Idea,” he even transforms into an independent subject, is the demiurgos of the real world, and the real world is only the external, phenomenal form of “the Idea.” With me, on the contrary, the ideal is nothing else than the material world reflected by the human mind, and translated into forms of thought.” [​Capital​ I: 191] What, then, is the relationship of Marx to Hegel?
  • Compare Lenin’s statement that “the result of activity is the test of subjective cognition and the criterion of objectivity which truly i​ s” [38:219] with his statement that the essence of dialectics “must be tested by the history of science.” [38:357] Would Gramsci agree with Lenin’s tests?
Class 3 Reading Package

Class 4: How revolutionaries are made

Sojourner Truth Organization: If Hegel is difficult, Plekhanov is a pleasure to read; it is no mystery why his writings are responsible for the early popularization of Marxism in Russia. This statement is an excellent summary of the orthodox view of the relations between individual character, society as a whole, and “historical accident.” Though Luxemburg and Plekhanov were later to diverge politically, there is a certain similarity in the views they expressed in the selections included here.

Readings

  • George Plekhanov, excerpt from The Role of the Individual in History
  • Rosa Luxemburg, “Stagnation and Progress of Marxism”
  • Noel Ignatin, Black Worker/White Worker
  • Frantz Fanon, Wretched of the Earth (New York: Grove Press, 1966, first Evergreen Edition), pages 27-38
  • Jean Paul Sartre, “Human relations as a mediation between different sectors of materiality,” from Critique of Dialectical Reason, vol. 1. (95-121) [AAD]
  • Rhymes for Young Ghouls (2013), 88 minutes, directed by Jeff Barnaby (Mi’gmaq) [AAD]

Supplementary or Future Recommended Readings

  • Sidney Hook, excerpt from Towards the Understanding of Karl Marx, “The Quest for Marx”
  • George Rawick, “The Historical Roots of Black Liberation,” Radical America, Volume 2, Number 4 (July-August 1968)

Discussion Questions

  • What determines the extent to which an individual can influence society? What is the influence of “accidents” on history? Are Plekhanov’s positions on these questions right? What about Engels’ [see the letters in Part I] ?
  • Why cannot human nature account for the course of history? Or can it?
  • What accounts for the stagnation of Marxism described by Rosa Luxemburg?
  • Luxemburg says that the third volume of Capital far exceeded the theoretical needs of the proletariat of her time. Is she right?
  • Why are people of great talent often the contemporaries of others with similar talents?
  • What is the limit of individual power? In what sense can a person “make history”?
  • Sartre argues that the individual only comes to exist socially when seen and interpreted by a third party. This idea was taken up by Fanon and other anti-colonial revolutionaries. Fanon even taught Sartre’s book Critique of Dialectical Reason in a field school to Algerian revolutionaries. Why does this idea help explain colonial society in particular? Can we use it to think about the creation of revolutionary fighters in our communities today? [AAD]
  • Is freedom, to Hegel, “just another word for nothin’ left to lose”? Does Frantz Fanon agree with Hegel’s definition?
  • What does George Rawick mean that “one can never remove culture, although one can transform it” [page 8]? What represents the negation of the negation in Black culture today?
  • Jeff Barnaby’s Rhymes for Young Ghouls is a revenge story where young Indigenous people become militants and take vengeance against an Indian agent on their reserve. Is there a difference in consciousness between these young rebels and the radicalization of a revolutionary? What is the difference? What influence do circumstances and the possibilities and limits of available organization have on the consciousness of a revolutionary? [AAD]
  • What does it mean to “construct acts to the end”?
  • What is self-activity? How is it relevant to revolution? Who is a revolutionary?
Class 4 Reading Package