On Social ''Contradictions''

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In speaking as I have of the contradictions of Marxism, how do I conceive the objects having or experiencing these contradictions? Most generally, I think of Marxists as a common-language-speaking community; as the historically evolving community of those speaking the sociolect, "Marxism," of those submitting to its rules—its grammar—and its practice. Marxism is the community of those performing a practice whose standards are those rules of the Marxist life that we may term its grammar or culture.

Marxism, therefore, is not at all only a theory or grammar. It is also an historically evolving culture and social structure, having several distinct concrete aspects:

(1) There is Marxism as a technical theory-ideology-social science; in short, as an extraordinary and "artificial," elaborated speech variant, spoken with considerable reflexivity by some (relatively small number of) intellectual specialists;

(2) There is also the "living" or "plain" Marxism of those for whom Marxism is part of an everyday life and practice, who submit to its grammar, obey its rules, using them to define or pursue political projects, and to organize their own personal identities. This is Marxism as an everyday culture, as a less reflexive language, i.e., a "Weltanschauung. "

(3) There is Marxism as a structured network of associations and social relations instrumental to the achievement of its political projects, and actively enforcing its grammar in evaluating its community's projects or its members' performances. Here we deal with Marxism as a "social movement," which may include one of the highly-boundaried, risk-taking, combat parties the movement has developed, i.e., the "vanguard" organization.

(4) Finally, there are Marxist "societies"—e.g., specific nation-states—in which children are socialized routinely into a Marxist grammar, and in which people's diverse needs can be satisfied by various community institutions whose legitimacy is defended on the grounds of their imputed conformity to the grammar of Marxism.

As for my use of "contradiction": I use contradictions to refer to a situation in which persons pursuing projects encounter alternatives, such that the choice of one alternative necessarily entails some loss of, or places some limit on, the use of the other. Contradictions are thus constraint-generating, inhibitory situations; they provide satisfaction of one alternative only at the cost of losing the alternative or some part of it. Thus, while all courses of action entail costs, those undertaken in the face of contradictions entail further costs implicated in alternatives foregone—however successful the pursuit of the chosen alternative.

Contradictions are thus courses of action that limit compromises between several courses. They entail the inhibition of one course as the price of opting for another.

The "external" ambiguity of such a social situation is likely to be matched by an ambivalence internal to the actor involved in it. The strategy and tactics of dealing with ambivalences and ambiguities constitute the special problems of the psychology and sociology of contradiction. For example, a long familiar response to ambivalence is to "overreact," i.e., to choose one alternative with an emphatic commitment to it, and with polemical (as against, say, reluctant) rejection of the other. Or, again, a paralysis of choice may result, such that neither alternative may be given any commitment, with resulting Hamletian inaction. Finally, there may be an erratic oscillation back and forth between the alternatives, first rejecting one and opting for the other and then reversing course.

Contradictions thus assume importance since they imply impending change precisely because they proliferate pathologies of action and communication, multiply the costs, and hence diminish the advantages of pursuing any course of action. Thus, the desirability of any outcome is always reduced in a contradictory situation. At the extreme, one may find himself in a "no-win" situation, such that the net costs of foregoing one alternative equal the net gains of the one undertaken. In short, a contradiction is a "bind"; one cannot escape one horn without impaling oneself on the other.

I shall not consider here all the familiar varieties of contradictions, for instance, dilemmas, paradoxes, or antinomies. I will limit myself here to one analytic distinction that exists at any and all of the concrete levels of Marxism. This is a distinction between ''internal" contradictions and others. (Clearly, the "others" are a residual category, that can be tolerated only in a preliminary formulation such as this.)

An internal contradiction is one in which a system, at any concrete level, is blocked/inhibited from conforming with one system rule because (or to the extent that) it is performing in conformity with another system rule. It is, in short, a "double bind." Here, each rule is an accepted part of the code, grammar, or culture, that governs the system and defines its identity. A concrete case of such an internal contradiction arises where the specific goals, projects, or social identities generated by conformity with one rule are thwarted (or inhibited) by reason of efforts to conform to another rule of that same code-culture-grammar. In the case of the internal contradictions, then, a grammar is generating a zero-sum game against itself, and one of its parts achieves conformity only at the cost of deviance from another, equally authentic part of itself.

Several important implications of this deserve statement. One is that an internal contradiction or double bind derives ultimately not from avoidance of the system's grammar but from efforts to conform with it. "Deviance" from one of the rules is produced by commitment to another. Thus, the system is producing anomie in one area, deteriorating the normative structure in one zone, precisely as a result of its members' faithful conformity in another. An internal contradiction, then, does not result from anomie, but produces it.

A solution to an internal contradiction, then, cannot be brought about by holding to the status quo. For here there is a conflict of "right against right" (as Marx described the relationship between labor and capital). Given a situation in which each alternative is rule sanctioned, thus legitimating its support, the solution to the dilemma cannot come from undermining the moral authority of any one side. Appeals to morality fail here, not because moral considerations are rejected as empty sentimentalities but because each side feels its moral position unshakeable, is convinced of its own rightness and the other side's wrongness.

There are essentially two ways in which such an internal contradiction can be resolved. One is to search for a higher rule that subsumes, or is prior to, those lower rules inducing the opposed actions; for example, the higher "good" or "survival" of the group, or "order," or "justice." A second common mode of resolving an internal contradiction is social conflict among the forces supporting each of the alternatives; here each side mobilizes and deploys power, force, and violence against the other. Internal contradictions, then, may in one case be resolved by redefining the cultural alternatives in conflict. They may be composed by redefining the situation so that, instead of being given conflicting definitions, it is given one common definition. Again, an existing contradiction may be "transcended" not by reverting to an already existing hierarchy of rules but by a cultural innovation, such as launching a new movement for cultural revitalization that successfully imposes a re-ordering of cultural imperatives, thus restructuring the code itself.

But composing contradictory rules by appeal to a higher level, or their "transcendence" by reorganizing the grammar, has limits placed upon it by another, fundamental consideration: by interests. Conformity to a rule is always generated by at least two conditions; by interest and by morality. In believing a rule to be right, conforming performances provide performers with that specific moral gratification we may call "righteousness," confirming them—in their own and others' judgements—as normal, reputable persons. This, in turn, gives them preferred access to the resources with which persons defined as trustworthy or estimable are normally rewarded. Persons thus usually have an interest in conforming with the rules, for this produces an advantageous allocation of gratifications quite apart from bestowing a sense of righteousness.

But this is viewing the situation in a post factum way, and without a condition of internal contradiction. Given a double bind or internal contradiction, where persons' conformity with one rule results in their crimping another, persons will not receive the rewards normal to conformity. One of two things may then happen. For one, some persons may continue to adhere to this rule but may resent those withholding the rightful reward. In this case, contradiction heightens conflicts among those supporting different rules. Or, secondly, persons may simply stop supporting the unrewarded rule. They may become "deviants, coming into opposition with those still supporting the rule. In both cases, however, social conflict has intensified.

Clearly, conformity with a rule is not reinforced solely by a resulting righteous feeling or social prestige. For this premises that any rule is interchangeable with any other. In any grammar, conformity with different rules produces different consequences. Actors will then support different rules, depending on the consequences. The rule, "a fair day's wage for a fair day's work," may be accepted by all; but it will be more salient to, and be given greater commitment by, a wage worker than a rentier. In short, alongside the grammar or code of rules, there is, also, a structure of differential interests. These interests structure the manner in which different groups relate to the grammar, leading some to place priority on rules different from those accented by others. Differential support is given different rules by different groups because rules produce different consequences, satisfying different groups' interests. Differential interpretations are also given to "one" rule, for the same reason.

Interests, then, set limits on the choice of, the emphasis on, the queueing of, the priority assigned to, or the interpretation of rules. An internal contradiction thus involves a choice of consequences and generates different outcomes for different groups. It implies and fosters social conflict among groups, strata, persons. Since they introduce rigidities and inflexibilities in commitments, interests limit the possibility of resolving internal contradictions by composing or transcending differences through changes in the moral code. The imposition of a solution through power struggles therefore becomes increasingly probable, under conditions of internal contradictions.

Of course, not all contradictions need be internal contradictions, and other contradictions have less likelihood of generating power conflicts. In short, some internal contradictions are "antagonistic" contradictions; others, however, need not be so, even though they increase the costs and problems of action. A system may impose some rule upon a community which may have difficulty in conforming with it, but not because this would entail nonconformity with some other rule of the system. A grammar may, for example, confront persons with the choice of either refusing conformity to one of its rules or of using up some scarce resource; say, for example, a choice between relinquishing personal automobiles or paying an ever higher price for gasoline. Here one is facing a choice between living in a style defined as desirable—i.e., in conformity with a code—and protecting another interest which may be compelling, but is prescribed (not by the code but) simply by a wish to economize resources and avoid costs. Such a situation confronts actors with an unpleasant choice between alternatives; a contradiction, to be sure, but not necessarily an internal contradiction in our terms. Only if automobile use and economizing resources are both code imposed, would we then speak of an internal contradiction, or double bind.

The existence of scarcity generally imposes economizing considerations. These, in turn, mean that persons often cannot have both things they wanted, and are faced with choosing one and renouncing the other. An economy of scarcity, then, is a basic and familiar grounding of social contradictions.

But conversely, resources are scarce, in some part, the more that persons value, want, and use them. The more things persons want, the greater the strain on their resources and the sharper the economic problem. A general limitation of wants, however, reduces the economizing problem; so does focusing wants on things not scarce, such as "goodness," ''justice," ''temperance'—the ''quiet" values. Hence religious codes emphasizing asceticism or "spiritual" (nonscarce) values, have long been modes of reducing contradictions, for they reduce pressure on scarce resources.

There is thus an interaction between economic scarcities and moral codes. Scarcity concerns the resources available to achieve the imperatives of a moral code, imposes choices, and thus fosters contradictions. But whether resources are scarce (or the extent to which they are scarce) depends, in turn, on the extent to which they are in demand, and thus depends also on the moral code. That is, demand depends partly (1) on the extent to which resources are valued by a moral code, and (2) on the kind of goods the code values. A system thus always has two strategies for dealing with contradictions engendered by scarce resources: (1) reducing scarcity, either (a) by changing the moral code and the demand-schedules it generates or (b) by increasing the production of these resources; (2) accepting the reality of scarce resources and allocating them on the basis of conflict.

There are then two kinds of contradictions of Marxism: (1) internal contradictions, derivative of efforts to conform to its own grammar which embodies mutually inhibiting alternatives; and (2) contradiction generated by conditions external to the grammar. The first converges with what I have termed the nuclear contradiction between Scientific and Critical Marxisms and the second, with what I have termed "anomalies" born either of the theoretical scheme's research applications or dissonant information generated by events in the world.


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From Alvin W. Gouldner,  The Two Marxisms.   New York:  Oxford University Press, 1980,  Appendix Three - "On Social 'Contradictions,' "  pp. 168-173.

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