Friday, April 23, 2010

"Accelerate the Contradictions": Notes Towards a History

A correspondent asked me about the origin and history of the phrase "accelerate the contradictions." Here's what I managed to dig up:

It is one of the less common of several variant phrases: "heighten (or sharpen, or develop) the contradictions"; "accelerate (or heighten, or develop) the crisis"; etc. (I chose it because I like how it sounds.)

The earliest use of any of these variants that I know of is by Marx in his "1844 manuscripts." Discussing the development of English political economy after Adam Smith, Marx writes:
It is therefore another great achievement of modern English political economy to have declared rent of land to be the difference in the interest yielded by the worst and the best land under cultivation; to have [exposed] the landowner's romantic illusions – his alleged social importance and the identity of his interest with the interest of society, a view still maintained by Adam Smith after the Physiocrats; and to [have] anticipated and prepared the movement of the real world which will transform the landowner into an ordinary, prosaic capitalist, and thus simplify and sharpen the contradiction [between capital and labour] and hasten its resolution. Land as land, and rent as rent, have lost their distinction of rank and become insignificant capital and interest – or rather, capital and interest that signify only money.
There is also a passage in Hegel's Logic (paragraph 961) that clearly has all of the elements:
Intelligent reflection, to mention this here, consists, on the contrary, in grasping and asserting contradiction. Even though it does not express the Notion of things and their relationships and has for its material and content only the determinations of ordinary thinking, it does bring these into a relation that contains their contradiction and allows their Notion to show or shine through the contradiction. Thinking reason, however, sharpens, so to say, the blunt difference of diverse terms, the mere manifoldness of pictorial thinking, into essential difference, into opposition. Only when the manifold terms have been driven to the point of contradiction to they become active and lively towards one another, receiving in contradiction the negativity which is the indwelling pulsation of self-movement and spontaneous activity.
Neither of these texts, however, employ the phrase in the sense it came to have in 20th century Marxism -- promoting revolution by making the current state of things more intolerable. Rosa Luxemburg comes closer in Reform or Revolution (1900):
In other words, when evaluated from the angle of their final effect on capitalist economy, cartels and trusts fail as “means of adaptation.” They fail to attenuate the contradictions of capitalism. On the contrary, they appear to be an instrument of greater anarchy. They encourage the further development of the internal contradictions of capitalism. They accelerate the coming of a general decline of capitalism.
As had August Bebel before her in Woman and Socialism (1879):
Since one industry furnishes the raw material to another and one depends upon the other, the ills that befall one must affect the others. The circle of those affected widens. Many obligations that had been entered upon in the hope of prolonged favorable conditions cannot be met, and heighten the crisis that grows worse from month to month.
But these texts don't suggest accelerating or heightening contradictions as a revolutionary strategy, but only as part of the process of capitalist development.

Lenin comes closer, in "The Heritage We Renounce" (1897):
The enlightener believes in the present course of social development, because he fails to observe its inherent contradictions. The Narodnik fears the present course of social development, because he is already aware of these contradictions. The “disciple” [of dialectical materialism] believes in the present course of social development, because he sees the only earnest hope of a better future in the full development of these contradictions. The first and last trends therefore strive to support, accelerate, facilitate development along the present path, to remove all obstacles which hamper this development and retard it.
So maybe the folk wisdom that attributes the strategy of accelerating the contradictions to Leninism is more or less correct!