The dialectics of liberation

Issue: 174

Ken Olende

A review of Dialectics of Revolution: Hegel, Marxism and its Critics through a Lens of Race, Class, Gender and Colonialism, Kevin B Anderson (Daraja Press, 2020), £20

Marxist theorist Kevin Anderson has had an abiding interest in reasserting the centrality of dialectics to Marxist thought. His starting point in Dialectics of Revolution is that Karl Marx did not, as French Marxist Louis Althusser argued, use the philosopher G W F Hegel’s dialectical method merely as a stepping stone to then be abandoned as he moved philosophically past it.1 Instead, Anderson argues, although “Marx attacked the conservative side of Hegel’s social and political philosophy”, he “at the same time took over the dialectic”.2 It remained central to his thinking throughout his life. Marx himself described his dialectical method as follows:

For Hegel…the real world is only the external appearance of the idea. With me the reverse is true; the ideal is nothing but the material world reflected in the mind of man and translated into forms of thought… Dialectical thought includes in its positive understanding of what exists a simultaneous recognition of its negation, its inevitable destruction; because it regards every historically developed form as being in a fluid state, in motion, and therefore grasps its transient aspect as well.3

This is a revolutionary understanding of a world in constant motion, replete with internal contradictions and shaken by sudden shifts. Thus, it is hardly surprising that the need for this method emerges at a time of political and social crisis.

Anderson’s project is in part a rejection of those who see Marxism as unable to deal with social phenomena not one-dimensionally related to class—specifically gender, race and colonialism. However, it is also a defence of classical Marxism from the “crudely deterministic models of Marxism of the Second International”, the philosophical positivism admired by many in the Stalinist tradition, and the attempt to fillet Marxism of dialectical thought by thinkers including Althusser, Lucio Colletti and the school of Analytical Marxism.4 The book is a collection of essays published over 30 years and occasionally suffers from the repetition and omissions that one might expect from such a publication. It is no introduction to Hegelian dialectics; anyone needing such a text would be better served by Terry Sullivan and Donny Gluckstein’s Hegel and Revolution (2020).

Anderson complains that many Marxists dismiss Hegel’s method because it is idealist. He points out that, having become materialists, Marx and Friedrich Engels initially defined their separate system of thought by contrasting it with the simplistic materialism of their contemporaries—notably Ludwig Feuerbach. So, Marx wrote, “The chief defect of all hitherto existing materialism (that of Feuerbach included), is that the thing, reality, sensuousness is conceived only in the form of the object…but not as sensuous human activity, practice not subjectivity”.5

Later, Lenin advanced philosophically from the relatively crude materialism expressed in his Materialism and Empirio-Criticism (1909) through a study in 1914-5 of Hegel’s dialectics. The outbreak of the First World War may seem a strange time for a revolutionary to turn to philosophy, but Lenin embarked on this theoretical study for an important, practical reason. He needed to understand why the supposedly Marxist parties of the Second International had flipped from professing internationalism to backing their own national ruling classes when war broke out. By answering this question he hoped to work out how he might renew revolutionary socialism. Following this research, he argued that, since his contemporaries had not “studied and understood the whole of Hegel’s Logic”, “none of the Marxists in the past half century have understood Marx”. Anderson adds that “Lenin would seem to include himself” in this accusation.6

Lenin came to terms with the dialectical concepts of totality and contradiction in a way that became key to his political development, most notably in Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916) and State and Revolution (1917). This can be seen in passages in the latter, for example, such as this:

Capitalism only became capitalist imperialism at a definite and very high stage of development, when certain of its fundamental characteristics began to change into their opposites… Monopoly is the exact opposite of free competition, but we have seen the latter being transformed into monopoly before our eyes.7

Furthermore, Anderson argues, “The movements for national liberation were to Lenin nothing less than the ‘dialectical opposite’ of the new capitalist stage marked by monopoly and imperialism”.8 After the October Revolution, the pressure of leading the Soviet Union, fighting the Russian Civil War and building the Communist International robbed Lenin of the time needed to foreground a “systematic study of Hegelian dialectics from a materialist standpoint” in the way that he had hoped.9 Furthermore, the rise of Stalinism—encouraged by the isolation of the Russian Revolution and the related reliance on the state rather than the dynamism of the international working class—was accompanied by the return of a crude, deterministic understanding of dialectics.

Anderson moves on from Lenin to examine how various philosophers, mostly leftists, tried to deal with Hegel’s legacy through the 20th century. One example is German philosopher Herbert Marcuse’s engagement with Hegel and Marx in Reason and Revolution (1941), which was important in breaking contemporary Marxism away from a Stalinist contempt for Hegelian thought. Marcuse’s book was published at a time when many leftist theorists saw Hegelian influences as introducing mysticism into Marxism, arguing that, as a scientific discipline, Marxists should look to philosophical positivism instead. Positivism, popular in the mid-20th century, accepted only that which could be “scientifically” proved, using the method associated with empirical science. However, Marcuse saw a key problem with this positivism—it saw change occurring as “part of the machinery of the given order”.10 Anderson further notes that critics at the time who dismissed the linkages Marcuse drew between Marxism and Hegel tended to ignore the sections on Marx’s then recently published Philosophical Notebooks. Marcuse was among the first to examine these texts in any depth.

In another section, Anderson contends that the arguments of the Hungarian Marxist philosopher Georg Lukács are still worthy of consideration—even those after he made his peace with Stalinism in the late 1920s and moved away from the ideas expressed in History and Class Consciousness (1923). Anderson puts forward a convincing defence of The Young Hegel (1938), where Lukács showed how Hegel developed his grasp of the contradictory nature of reality “by studying periods of crisis on the history of human civilisation”.11 Lukács compared Hegel’s idea of alienated labour with Marx’s more historically specific view, and he also sought to explain why Hegel saw the state as a solution to the problem.

In “Dialectics Today”, originally from 2013, Anderson notes that many of the post-Marxist and post-modernist thinkers who claim to be operating to some degree in Marx’s heritage make a point of rejecting dialectics absolutely. In the retreat from radicalism after 1968, hostility to dialectics was coupled with a rejection of the “grand narrative” of class struggle against capitalism. As Anderson shows with the examples of Daniel Cohn-Bendit and Gilles Deleuze, this can lead to a focus on social movements that nevertheless “conspicuously leaves aside the labour movement from the list of movements and capitalism from their conception of what to oppose”. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri retained the idea of opposing capitalism in Empire (2000), but they reject dialectical thought as part of the “logic of modern domination”.12 Theoretically, they prefer to look to Friedrich Nietzsche rather than draw on the dialectical tradition. The deconstructive tradition associated with French thinker Jacques Derrida strikes a similar posture, and the post-colonial theorist Gayatri Spivak has spoken of “deconstruction’s share in the undoing of the dialectic”.13 In part, as Derrida made explicit, this is because of the dialectical concern with “totality”.14 Hardt and Negri speak for many such theorists when they claim that the dialectical idea of totality abandons “the multiplicity of difference”.15

Anderson introduces a very useful discussion on how, far from liberating themselves from the straitjacket of Marxism, such theorists can end up less flexible in their thought and understanding. An example is Michel Foucault, whose ideas have become dominant among academic thinkers on the left. Anderson quotes Foucault’s analysis of power and resistance from his History of Sexuality:

Where there is power, there is resistance, and yet, or rather consequently, this resistance is never in a position of exteriority in relation to power… Power relationships’ very existence depends on a multiplicity of points of resistance… Hence, there is no single locus of great refusal, no soul of revolt.16

Anderson counters that not all forms of resistance are equivalent. “Resistance” in the abstract implies “a sort of circulatory or permanence of resistance—and of power, which occludes the possibility of actually overcoming capital and the state in a positive, emancipatory manner”.17 Such an overcoming would require the understanding of contradiction and totality contained within Marxist dialectics.

This is equally true of arguments about racial and gender liberation. Anderson reminds us:

Marx castigated, as did Hegel, the abstract universals of traditional idealist philosophy and of modern liberalism, with its human and civil rights that are so often little more than formulaic to those at the bottom of society. Yet, at the same time, Marx embraces what he and Hegel called the “concrete universal”: a form of universality that was rooted in social life and yet pointed beyond the given world of the pseudo-concrete.18

These engagements with contemporary debates are the book’s real strength. However, there are also problematic areas, and these emerge particularly in one key argument. Anderson states:

To the extent that it attempts to answer core philosophical issues via practice, including the building of a vanguard party—an elitist and undialectical notion to which Lenin clung even after 1914—Lenin’s Marxism cannot help us very much to confront today’s crises of Marxism and to find a way out.19

Anderson is an advocate of “Marxist humanism”, and his understanding of dialectics is heavily influenced by that tradition’s founder, Raya Dunayevskaya. Once Leon Trotsky’s secretary, Dunayevskaya went on to bring Marx’s early philosophical writings, the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, to wider attention. She developed a distinctive understanding of Marxism based on a detailed reading of Hegel’s philosophy.20 Thinkers in this tradition admire Lenin’s philosophical engagement with the actuality of working-class organisation, but view it as separate from his belief in building a vanguard party. This perspective sees Lenin’s idea of the party as static and unchanging after the arguments for a vanguard of professional revolutionaries in What is to be Done? (1903).

However, Lenin did not accidentally cling to his idea of party building; it was central to his practical and theoretical work. At its heart was a dialectical understanding of the interaction between the leading role of the party and how the party’s direction is guided by the working class. By the time he wrote Left-Wing Communism (1920), Lenin had spelt out a more fluid idea of what a vanguard was as part of the push to build the Communist International:

How is the discipline of the proletariat’s revolutionary party maintained? … First, by the class consciousness of the proletarian vanguard and by its devotion to the revolution… Second, by its ability to link up, maintain the closest contact and, if you wish, merge in a certain measure with the broadest masses of the working people—primarily with the proletariat, but also with the non-proletarian masses of working people. Third, by the correctness of the political leadership exercised by this vanguard.21

Indeed, I think Dunayevskaya came close to seeing this point when she once argued about this interaction:

The party, as the “knowing” of the proletariat, would prove itself by aligning with these masses. It was not that the party “guided them”; it was they who pushed the party forward… No vanguard role is ever “fixed for all time”. Only with the vanguard party’s transformation into opposite—the monolithic party of Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev, Mao Zedong—did such a concept arise.22

Anderson is very good on how an understanding of contradictions enabled Lenin to leap forward in his attitude towards national liberation. However, his dismissal of Lenin’s dialectical understanding of the interaction between party and class leaves him silent on Lenin’s arguments about why the party must be separate from the state as well as the subtleties and centrality of the united front tactic.23 The issue of political organisation in itself does not solve theoretical questions but, as with Lenin’s original reason for studying Hegel, it always relates to them in times of crisis. So, whether they agree with Marxism or not, practical concerns about how to organise and spread ideas are key to, for example, activists in Black Lives Matter and the radicals struggling for democracy across the Middle East.24

This omission is a pity, especially because Anderson’s arguments are cogent and vital in many other areas. His ideas are an important part of developing a modern and engaged Marxism, but they do not always reflect the totality of the movement. In a contemporary conclusion Anderson states that the shift away from Marx to Foucault and other post-structuralists by many left intellectuals “helped to disorient the left”:

By the time of the 1999 Seattle protests against globalised capitalism, and in an even more pronounced manner after the Great Recession of 2008, issues of economic inequality came to the fore one again on the left and, with them, capital and class.25

The revival of Marxism is taking place to a greater degree outside academia than within it, partly reflecting its potential strength as an organising tool for those engaging in real political practice.

Anderson’s classic Marx at the Margins looked at Marx’s understanding of nationalism, race and non-Western societies. There, he argued for the importance of understanding Marx’s ideas in terms of his dialectical philosophy and why that made them still relevant:

Marx’s mature social theory revolved around a concept of totality that not only offered considerable scope for particularity and difference but also on occasion made those particulars—race, ethnicity or nationality—determinants for the totality.26

In Dialectics of Revolution he takes a more specialised look at the theoretical reasons for such conclusions. As such, this book is part of an important argument, showing how an understanding of totality is central to renewing the working-class movement—involving people from different genders, racial backgrounds and parts of the world—and taking on the international capitalist system.

Ken Olende is researching a PhD on “Rethinking ‘blackness’ as a racial identity” at Brighton University. He has previously worked as a tutor for the Workers’ Educational Association, a journalist on Socialist Worker and the editor of Unite Against Fascism’s Unity magazine.


1 Althusser, 2005, p33.

2 Anderson, 2020, p15.

3 Marx, 1976, p102.

4 Anderson, 2020, p41.

5 Marx, 1888.

6 Anderson, 2020, p44. These arguments are explored in Anderson, 1995.

7 Anderson, 2020, p71.

8 Anderson, 2020, p73.

9 Anderson, 2020, p47.

10 Anderson, 2020, p96.

11 Anderson, 2020, p151.

12 Anderson, 2020, p160.

13 Anderson, 2020, p172.

14 Anderson, 2020, p173.

15 Anderson, 2020, p160.

16 Quoted in Anderson, 2020, p181.

17 Anderson, 2020, p194.

18 Anderson, 2020, p202.

19 Anderson, 2020, p53.

20 Indeed, Anderson has recently co-edited a book on her theories—see Anderson, Durkin and Brown, 2021.

21 Lenin, 1964, p10.

22 Dunayevskaya, 1963.

23 Both issues are discussed by Chris Harman in Party and Class (Bookmarks, 1997). Lenin’s evolving view of the party is detailed in John Molyneux’s Marxism and the Party (Pluto, 1978) and Paul Le Blanc’s Lenin and the Revolutionary Party (Humanities Press International, 1990).

24 Alexander, 2021.

25 Anderson, 2020, p218.

26 Anderson, 2010, p244.


Alexander, Anne, 2021, “Ten Years Since the Arab Revolutions: Middle Eastern Voices Reflect on a Rebellious Decade”, International Socialism 170 (spring),

Althusser, Louis, 2005 [1962], For Marx (Verso).

Anderson, Kevin B, 1995, Lenin, Hegel and Western Marxism (University of Illinois Press).

Anderson, Kevin B, 2010, Marx at the Margins: On Nationalism, Ethnicity and Non-Western Societies (University of Chicago Press).

Anderson, Kevin B, 2020, Dialectics of Revolution: Hegel, Marxism and its Critics through a Lens of Race, Class, Gender and Colonialism (Daraja Press).

Anderson, Kevin B, Kieran Durkin and Heather A Brown, 2021, Raya Dunayevskaya’s Intersectional Marxism: Race, Class, Gender, and the Dialectics of Liberation (Palgrave).

Dunayevskaya, Raya, 1963, “The Uniqueness of Marxist-Humanism”,

Lenin, V I, 1964 [1920], “Left-wing Communism, an Infantile Disorder”, in Collected Works, volume 31 (Progress),

Marx, Karl, 1888 [1845], Theses on Feuerbach,

Marx, Karl, 1976 [1867], Capital, volume 1 (Penguin).

Rees, John, 1998, The Algebra of Revolution: The Dialectic and the Classical Marxist Tradition (Routledge).