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Richard Levins and Dialectical Thinking

For Richard Levins’s 85th birthday and his career as a scientist for the people.

Richard Levins conveys the essence of dialectical thinking through the many examples he offers of its application, in every imaginable domain.

Someone earlier than Dick — perhaps it was Hegel — remarked that, in contrast to formal logic, which is static, the dialectic is the logic of life.  It was indeed Hegel who gave (in his Phenomenology) the classic example of what the key axiom of formal logic, “A = A,” fails to encompass.  Suppose “A” is a slave.  But a slave is a human being, and the essence of being human is to have freedom.  The so-called “law of identity” thus breaks down.  It clouds reality in a way that, not incidentally, reinforces the status quo.

I would like to mention here some of the examples of dialectics that Dick has given and also some instances where I have sought to apply similar reasoning, with the goal of breaking through logjams in political understanding.

I was especially inspired by his 1992 book-chapter entitled “Agricultural Ecology,” which I have often assigned as a required reading in my course on Modern Political Thought.

Several persistent themes emerge in this chapter.  One is a polemic against fixating on a single narrowly defined goal, as is done in capitalist agriculture.  Obsessive concern with single crops results in depletion of soil nutrients, proliferation of pests, and reliance on toxic chemicals.  Against this approach, Levins shows how a multiplicity of species and life-forms interact to maintain a healthy balance and, in particular, to reduce the need for irrigation and protect against potential infestations or scarcities.  A similar argument applies against the general policy-objective of economic growth, which Levins criticizes in this chapter under the rubric of “developmentalism.”

A second theme is respect for the accumulated wisdom of those who have worked the land for generations.  This is counterposed not against formal training as such, but against the particular kind of expert knowledge that is driven by market-based notions of efficiency, which disregard the long term.  A more broadly grounded expertise, linking socio-economic considerations with those of plant science, has now become indispensable.  Some of its insights may indicate a return to earlier indigenous practices that have been destroyed in the course of capitalist development.  With this in mind, Levins posits a historic progression of approaches to agriculture, from labor-intensive through capital-intensive to what he calls “thought-intensive.”

A third theme is the rejection of false dichotomies between the local and the global.  Eco-systems exist at many different levels, which interpenetrate.  Changes at the micro and the macro levels are mutually dependent.  While there is a place for the decentralized units beloved of anarchists (economic decentralization being crucial to local biodiversity), there are thus also spheres of policy which — like weather patterns — inherently affect much larger units and must therefore be addressed through centralized planning.

All these specific arguments relate to the larger agenda of transforming society and, in the process, transforming ourselves.  Marx himself viewed this scenario as one of gestation, whereby the entity that is being formed separates itself from the setting in which it began to take shape.  Elements of the new person evolve in dialectical interaction with elements of the new social order.  The latter, in turn, may emerge — again in a pattern of mutual dependence — both at the level of small-scale organizations and at the level of broader currents of awareness.

This complex process is shown when one considers the various settings in which class struggle may play out.  Class interests express themselves both within and between national units.  The direct political clash occurs within a given national unit, but the balance of forces within that unit may be affected by the support that each receives from outside its boundaries.  This support may take the form of direct material or even military aid, but it may also take the form of offering positive models which, if well enough publicized, may buttress popular forces around the world.  Such models — e.g., examples of agricultural or worker cooperatives; successes like those of Cuba in education and public health — may be of value even if they do not describe everything about the unit within which they arise.

A particular challenge for dialectical thinking is the task of forging a unified popular movement out of the disparate agglomeration of progressive constituencies that have dotted the US political scene since the 1960s.  The various “new social movements” which formed at that time did so with the feeling that an older class-oriented Left politics had failed to do justice to their demands.  Instead of now fighting for their demands within the framework of the class struggle, however, key protagonists of these movements assumed that the only way they could advance would be by, in effect, downgrading the importance of class to the level of one particular “interest,” no more central than any other.

And yet, as each “identity” pursues its perceived interests in isolation from the others, the result is that the dominant agenda of capital — which sets the parameters in every sphere of society — proceeds unscathed along its path of destruction.

What a dialectical understanding could have facilitated is the recognition that asserting the centrality of class struggle in no way diminishes the importance of struggling against the spurious affirmations of supremacy grounded in “race,” sex, or sexual orientation.  Each of these other struggles is informed in various ways by class struggle, which distinguishes itself from them by the fact that its antagonistic poles are inherently defined by a relationship of domination.

Dialectical reasoning makes it possible to integrate each and all of the particular identity struggles with class struggle, without diminishing any of them.  With a dialectical approach, one is encouraged to criticize at once (a) any failure of class-based politics to do justice to the various “identity” demands and (b), from the opposite direction, any reluctance on the part of identitarian advocates to acknowledge the importance — both to their own constituencies and to humanity as a whole — of overcoming a narrow, interest-based approach to politics.  A dialectical approach, unlike the interest-based approach, can see the totality (the entire power structure) within each of its particular manifestations.

Finally, I wish to note with appreciation Dick’s extraordinary contributions to the journal I edit, Socialism and Democracy.  The first was an essay in our 1998 double issue (23/24), entitled “Rearming the Revolution: The Tasks of Theory for Hard Times.”  The second was his part in a Brecht Forum roundtable, “The Future of the Left,” celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Communist Manifesto (transcript in S&D 25, 1999).  The third was a critique entitled “Progressive Cuba-Bashing” (S&D 37, 2005).

In his 1998 S&D essay, Dick writes: “To defend Marxism is not simply to reaffirm it.  The task presupposes flexibility, self-criticism and creative development.”  This is what he continuously practices.


Victor Wallis (at <zendive@aol.com>) teaches in the Liberal Arts department at the Berklee College of Music in Boston and is the managing editor of Socialism and Democracy (at <www.sdonline.org>).  This essay was first published on the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health Web site for “‘The Truth Is the Whole’ — 2.5-day Symposium Before the 85th Birthday of Dr. Richard Levins,” 21-2 May 2015; it is reproduced here for non-profit educational purposes.




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