- Purchase/rental options available:
History of Political Economy 32.1 (2000) 165
[Access article in PDF]
The Myth of Dialectics
The Myth of Dialectics. By John Rosenthal. London: Macmillan, 1998. xv; 238 pp.
This is an ambitious, provocative, irritating, and difficult book. Rosenthal regards Hegel's philosophy as "mysticism all the way through." It did not provide Marx with a "supposed 'dialectical method,'" since no such method exists. Instead of using his "method," Marx "[made] scientific use of Hegel's mysticism." This was "a consequence of the peculiar nature of money," which is "a kind of 'mystical object' . . . the universal economic 'essence' of commodities . . . which is both ideally implicit to them and really exists alongside them."
These quotations come from the dust jacket, which is unfortunately the only place where Rosenthal provides a (reasonably) clear summary of his thesis. The book itself is very densely written. This is perhaps inevitable, given the subject matter, but many of the long and informative footnotes could have been included in the text, and some effort might have been made to recapitulate what is a very complicated argument, if only in a concluding chapter (there is none). All this is a pity, because Rosenthal's themes are important ones and deserve to be presented more accessibly.
His scattergun attack also causes problems. Many readers will disagree with his description of G. A. Cohen's Karl Marx's Theory of History as a "crude variant of technological determinism" (22) and with his implied, but virulent, attack on critical realism (149). Marx himself is pronounced innocent of the great and all-encompassing sin of "historicism," but the term is defined so broadly as to inculpate almost everyone who has ever written sympathetically on the Marxian approach to history (including Gramsci, to cite just one strange example).
Efforts by theorists such as Avineri and Cullen to present a coherent Hegelian theory of history, shorn of any mysticism, are simply ignored, as is the work of Herbert Marcuse and the Frankfurt School. Rosenthal makes a great deal of the supposed polarity between the Analytical Marxism of John Roemer and Jon Elster and the "'New' Hegelian Marxism" of Chris Arthur and Michael Williams. But this is a purely rhetorical construction that allows him to "chart a kind of theoretical 'third way'" between them (ix)--in common with at least nine Marxists out of ten, I would have thought.
The connection between all this and Rosenthal's discussion of Marx on money is not always easy to understand. The concluding section of the book, which deals with this question, is very heavy going. I am not sure that it adds much to the existing, enormous literature on money and value in Marx's thought, and the absence of any attempt to trace the chronological development of his ideas is particularly frustrating. To conclude, a somewhat longer and much better-written book might well have carried more conviction.
J. E. King
La Trobe University