A Reflection on Dialectics (and How Marx Broke Up With Hegel)

The Marxist Project
11 min readJan 5, 2023



Dialectics hold a kind of mystical grip over leftist — and most specifically Marxist — discourse. It is often repeated that analysis should proceed dialectically, that we must observe and assess contradictions as the methodological staples of the Marxist theoretical diet. At times, this sort of mantra transcends methodology and moves into ontology. It is therefore not enough to think dialectically, we must accept the very structure of reality itself as intrinsically dialectical. Admittedly, this sort of prescription is suggested even on this channel in our video on dialectics, where we illustrate dialectical processes through metaphors of natural phenomena. It may aid us to conceive of dialectical processes as the life cycle of a plant from germination to maturity but we should only do so under the careful qualification that this is a conception, a sort of mental-theoretical construct that serves to explain phenomena.

Economic historian E.K. Hunt (1979) traces the roots of the dialectic as the basis of Marxist “ontology,” demonstrating that it was Engels and later contributors who gave “dialectical materialism” a type of primacy that it had not received with Marx:

For Marx, the dialectic was epistemological not ontological; it was a method of thinking and not existentially inherent in matter. Matter did not constitute all reality; there was only one reality, and it was made up of two irreducible, but interrelated and interacting, components: matter and thought (including all mental phenomena, such as perceptions, emotions, and so forth, as thought) (p. 115).

The last part is very important as well. We can say that the dialectical framework is conceptual without engaging in a type of dualism that claims the real world exists somewhere beyond the conceptual one. No — the conceptual world, insofar as it is an amalgam of ever-improving knowledge, exists in the same real world that it hopes to understand.

The so-called dialectical method is a type of epistemological framework: it prescribes a certain mode of inquiry that helps us make sense of the world around us. It is not some mystical key that unlocks the deep secrets of the universe and it is certainly not justifiable to claim that the world is “dialectically structured,” whatever that may even mean.

It is no mystery that dialectics came into the Marxist tradition through Marx’s keen interest in Hegel. What is still hotly contested, however, is to what extent Marx preserved the Hegelian system of thinking and Hegel’s conception of the world itself. It is famously stated (including by Marx himself) that Marx’s dialectic is an inversion of Hegel’s. But as we shall see in this video, this obfuscates a very crucial departure from Hegel in Marx, particularly in his later works.

Our tour guide for this journey will be none other than Althusser himself — among the most famous Marxists to have argued that, no, Marx really did create something entirely distinct from what he found in Hegel.

We will start off with definitions that Althusser provides. Althusser notes that an evaluation of a theoretical problem requires defining the field the problem is pertinent to, locating the exact “position” of the problem within the field, and articulating the concepts needed to pose the problem (Althusser 2005). It is with this understanding that Althusser moves to reflect on Marx’s “inversion” of the Hegelian dialectic.

In establishing the prerequisite definitions, Althusser outlines practice as a metabolic activity in which “raw material” is transformed into a “product” through human labor using the “means of production.” This productive definition applies to theoretical practice in the same way it applies to all other forms of social practice, which constitute a “complex unity of the practices existing in a determinate society.”

Theoretical practice, insofar as it maintains a position within social practice in general, uses representations, concepts, and facts (raw material) produced by other practices, “whether ‘empirical’, ‘technical’ or ‘ideological’.” In this sense, theoretical practice is not strictly scientific and can include “pre-scientific” elements of production. The pre-history of a science is ideological and Althusser argues there is an epistemological break after which ideology becomes science. However, for the sake of his analysis, Althusser takes up “a position beyond the ‘break’ within the constituted science” thereby referring to theory as “any theoretical practice of a scientific character.” This Althusser contrasts with ‘theory’, which refers to the theoretical system of basic concepts in a real science.

Lastly, there is Theory, or the “Theory of practice in general, itself elaborated on the basis of the Theory of existing theoretical practices (of the sciences), which transforms into ‘knowledges’ (scientific truths) the ideological product of existing ‘empirical’ practices (the concrete activity of men).” The metatheoretical Theory is naturally the broadest abstraction in the framework presented by Althusser. It is the foundation for conceptualizing both theory (theoretical practice of a scientific nature) and ‘theory’ (determinate theoretical systems of a real science).

How is it, then, that Althusser comes to call Theory the “materialist dialectic”?

Althusser contends that the Marxist dialectic already exists in its practical state but is yet to be discovered theoretically. Specifically, it is within the pages of Capital that we may find Marx’s dialectic, present in the very frameworks of Marx’s arguments. However, Marx did not offer us his dialectic in a theoretical state — he never developed a Theory (though he had talked of writing a Dialectics). Althusser argues that the reason Marx never worked out his Theory was because theory can “do its duty,” that is to say, it can produce knowledge, without needing to develop an overarching, metatheoretical structure. That Marx never wrote a Dialectics is a testament to the fact that such a text was not necessary for his purposes. Eventually, every theory runs into the practical problem of needing to elaborate its corresponding Theory. To be sure, that Theory is already there but it has not been known in a theoretical sense. To uncover Theory, to produce a knowledge of it, theoretical work needs to be done.

What is the process by which new knowledge is produced? Althusser offers us a deceptively simple schema punctuated by three generalities. The first generality is the “raw material” of science’s theoretical practice. This raw material is worked on by Generality II and ultimately comes out of the “production process” as Generality III: a knowledge. However Althusser warns us that the raw materials do not have an essence of “pure immediacy and singularity” but are rather something “general.” In other words, this metabolic process that transforms Generality I into Generality III works on concepts. Specifically it works on transforming ideological concepts into scientific ones. The metabolism works through the application of Generality II, the ‘theory’ of a science (it’s methodological structures and the conceptual limits those structures necessarily entail), to Generality I.

An important component of this process is the notion of qualitative discontinuity. By this Althusser means that the product of theoretical practice is not an iteration of the raw materials. It retains no qualities of Generality I given that the production of Generality III is necessarily transformative. This differs considerably from the Hegelian process, which is not only auto-generative but also suggests no explicit delineation between the three generalities. In other words, Hegel does not consider the qualitative discontinuity between the generalities.

The so-called inversion of Hegel that takes place in Marx does not reveal the true transformation of the dialectic. Marx is not simply inverting the relationship between the real and the abstract, Althusser insists, since the Marxist dialectic does not take for the origin point of knowledge production an element of the “real” but rather a concept, an element of the abstract. Marx is reinventing the process altogether. The Marxist dialectic involves a multiplicity of contiguous (if not overlapping) practices:

Generality I, for example, the concept of ‘fruit’, is not the product of an ‘operation of abstraction’ performed by a ‘subject’ (consciousness, or even that mythological subject ‘practice’) — but the result of a complex process of elaboration which involves several distinct concrete practices on different levels, empirical, technical and ideological. (To return to our rudimentary example, the concept of fruit is itself the product of distinct practices, dietary, agricultural or even magical, religious and ideological practices — in its origins.) So as long as knowledge has not broken with ideology, every Generality I will be deeply impregnated by ideology, which is one of the basic practices essential to the existence of the social whole. The act of abstraction whereby the pure essence is extracted from concrete individuals is an ideological myth. In essence, Generality I is inadequate to the essence of the objects from which abstraction should extract it. It is this inadequacy that theoretical practice reveals and removes by the transformation of Generality I into Generality III. So Generality I itself is a rejection of the model from empiricist ideology presupposed by the ‘inversion’ (Althusser 2005, p. 191).

Althusser argues that the “inversion” thesis preserves the ideological basis of Hegel’s dialectic. The rejection of the Hegelian framework is a rejection of the totality in favor of totalities. The production of knowledge is complicated by “several distinct concrete practices on different levels.” This phrase is crucial because it suggests not only the presence of multiple moving parts but also relative positions between those parts that necessarily produce specific outcomes.

This becomes more evident in Althusser’s reformulation of contradiction. Here, again, the break from Hegel is demonstrated by a rejection of singularity. Borrowing from Mao, Althusser notes that there is not a single, essential contradiction expressed in the social whole but rather a complex of contradictions that produce several totalities. Marxist theoretical practice rejects the premise of the Hegelian dialectic which is “completely dependent on the radical presupposition of a simple original unity which develops within itself by virtue of its negativity, and throughout its development only ever restores the original simplicity and unity in an ever more ‘concrete’ totality” (Althusser 2005). Instead, the complex whole identified by Marxist theoretical practice is “structured in dominance” (it has a principal contradiction and secondary contradictions, the former being the primary structuring element) and thus the “whole cannot be envisaged without its contradictions, without their basically uneven relations.” Althusser contends that “each contradiction, each essential articulation of the structure, and the general relation of the articulations in the structure in dominance, constitute so many conditions of the existence of the complex whole itself.” Unlike Hegel’s totality, in which the components are expressions of a single element, Marx’s totality is defined by an unevenness and a multiplicity of parts. This means the secondary contradictions define the structure of the whole, which cannot be said about the “spheres” in Hegel’s whole which merely reflect the fundamental paradigm. The relative autonomy of the contradictions in the Marxist totality represents a radical departure from Hegel.

Relative autonomy suggests (semi-)independent mobility. Althusser points out that contradictions shift and displace each other within the complex whole, in general possessing varying velocities. It is because contradictions are overdetermined (by which Althusser means they are “determined by the structured complexity that assigns” them their roles) that their development is incongruous. This dynamic is made more clear in Althusser’s discussion of time.

Althusser tells us that for Hegel time is a reflection of the continuum of the Idea (Althusser 2016, p. 240). Every temporal instance is a moment of the manifestation of the Idea. Thus, the whole “science of history” for Hegel is the periodization of this continuum, defined by the dialectical movement of the Idea, into adequate parts. Each such moment in time (and in the development of the Idea) is composed of the complete Hegelian whole, with all its internally connected elements, which are themselves reflections of the whole. This necessarily negates the notion of “the succession of different forms of society,” since it is not the immanent sequence that determines the system.

Althusser draws the divide between Marx and Hegel based on their different “concepts of historical time” (Althusser 2016, p.246–7) Whereas with Hegel we have time as a reflection of the Idea, where every given moment is composed of contemporaneous parts (which all reflect the whole), in Marx, we have different times. The whole structure consists of a complex of levels, which have their own times and are described by Althusser as being semi-autonomous. Though they are defined “in the last instance” by the economic structure, this “dominance” is tempered by a relative autonomy within which each level shifts and evolves. Vittorio Morfino echoes this sentiment when he writes:

While the Hegelian contradiction is the development of a simple unit in which its telos is written ab origine, the Marxist contradiction is always ‘overdetermined’ inasmuch as it develops internally to an entire social complex that is structured in dominance (p. 156).

Thus, when we produce a cross-section (an ‘essential section,’ as Althusser calls it) we get an unevenness that is not present in the contemporaneity and homogenous continuity of Hegelian time. Since the different levels have their own times and develop semi-autonomously, any picture we take from a strictly temporal perspective will reveal heterogeneity. Moreover, certain times can recede into invisibility, and the purpose of truly developing a history of any X level is producing a symptomatic “reading” of the history after establishing crucial parameters (e.g. what is the object? What is the problematic? etc.), in which the invisible is read to reveal the real movement behind the apparent movement. This is why Althusser says that chronological sequences marking events and people is not history, it would only be, in his terms, the apparent motion. The real motion rests in the development of the object, which can often lack fluidity or transparency (hence the need for symptomatic readings). Lenin captured this notion perfectly with his famous quote: “There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.”

The biggest takeaway here is that the structure of Marx’s system is amorphous like an amoeba. The political, social, or cultural spheres (and the spheres within them) move in accordance with their own rhythms. They are not ordered about by some essence that “pulls” all of history forward. What Althsuser is saying is if you were to slice out a specific point in time, in Marx you would get a sort of uneven picture, where perhaps the political elements have moved faster than the cultural or vice versa. Moreover, these elements are defined by their relations with all the others. The history of race as a construct would not be what it is without the parallel political and economic developments that helped give it a shape. This of course has serious implications for theoretical practice as well. Our theories work on self-contained abstractions, but the processes and knowledges (the means of production and raw materials) are influenced by economic, political, and social elements. This may seem almost too obvious to some of you, but too often we allow ourselves to forget or overlook the structural links that connect theoretical breakthroughs with corresponding political and economic circumstances.

What we’ve uncovered is that a careful analysis can demonstrate how Marx came to understand the world in a manner completely distinct from Hegel. Moreover, while this manner is still in some sense dialectical (though perhaps questionably so) and certainly materialist, it is at most an epistemological tool. It would be unproductive to project Marxist dialectics any further than this point, to ascribe it with a type of infallibility that implies it is a universal constant in any and every thing.

Further thoughts:

Marx Without Hegel, History Without an End (Essay) https://medium.com/@themarxistproject/marx-without-hegel-history-without-an-end-44130ed2e44e

Marx’s Theory of Transitions (Video) https://youtu.be/udAkveA2Of8


Althusser, L. (2005). For Marx (Vol. 2). Verso Books.

Althusser, L. (2016). Reading capital: The complete edition. Verso Books.

Hunt, E. K. 1979. “The Importance of Thorstein Veblen for Contemporary Marxism.” Journal of Economic Issues 13, no. 1 (March): 113–140.

Morfino, Vittorio. (2015). Plural temporalities: Transindividuality and the aleatory between Spinoza and Althusser. Chicago, IL: Haymarket Book.