A Review of The Birth of Theory by Andrew Cole

the bird

Samo Tomšič

Humboldt Universität zu Berlin



This book review of Andrew Cole’s The Birth of Theory examines his philosophical position and the distinctive contribution of this volume to the ongoing renewal of materialist dialectics. It provides an overview of the author’s take on the history of dialectical thought, notably on the complex relation between the medieval and modern dialectic, before finally turning toward Cole’s engagement with Hegel and Marx. The review affirms Cole’s attempt to renew strong continuity between the Hegelian and Marxian dialectical method and, in parallel, proposes to extend this dialectical framework to psychoanalysis, which, despite not standing in the foreground of Cole’s volume, affords The Birth of Theory strong implicit conceptual guidance.


dialectic – materialism – Marx – Hegel

Andrew Cole, (2014) The Birth of Theory, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Sometimes groundbreaking developments require no more than a minimal displacement within a familiar and apparently charted field. The history of dialectics is undoubtedly a plausible candidate for a terrain where one would probably not expect any major surprises. Or, an engaged attempt at re-actualising the historical material, combined with close reading of classical texts, may challenge the habitual narratives of the history of dialectics and produce maximal consequences, which end up redrawing the cartography and reshaping the panorama of the entire field in question. Andrew Cole’s The Birth of Theory contains just such a displacement, and it concerns probably the most challenging name in the history of philosophy, the enfant terrible of dialectical thought, G.W.F. Hegel.

The name can hardly be pronounced without recalling the weight of polemics that revolve around his place and role in the history of philosophy. If Whitehead could write that ‘the safest general characterisation of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato’,[1] then the nineteenth and twentieth centuries did not only produce a series of more-or-less pertinent footnotes to Hegel, but his philosophy moreover sparked an entirely new conflict, one that seems to be significantly more heated than the polemic around Plato. Post-Hegelian thought is, so to speak, marked by a new affect, which accompanies the quarrels: viz. whether Hegel stands for something good or bad, whether his developments are considered progressive or reactionary, whether thinkers depict one unique or several mutually-exclusive Hegels, and so on. One could indeed sustain that Hegel became the name of an inevitable, maybe even forced choice, comparable to the notorious ‘your money or your life’.[2] Whatever side one ends up choosing, the decision remains, in one way or another, marked by the coordinates and consequences of the Hegelian break, and on least at some level one continues tarrying with Hegel.

Another immense question falls within this general philosophical framework; this concerns the relation between Hegel’s dialectics and Marx’s critique of political economy. Even for us today it would be all too hasty to assume that everything involved in this relation has been sufficiently clarified. To this degree, the question of this relationship itself has in no way lost its relevance. In addition, this issue is only apparently ‘esoteric’, ‘abstract’ (i.e. purely theoretical) or ‘exegetical’: the sharpness, radicality and efficacy of Marxist thought significantly depends on the attitude Marxism as such adopts toward apparently abstract theoretical questions, and more specifically, toward the speculative kernel of Marx’s work and method. The complex issue of political organisation is already a paradigmatically theoretical question, the flipside of conceptual production and elaboration of theoretical strategies that will orientate thinking and other modes of action in a way that will awaken political subjects from their inertia and disturb their immersion in the world of appearances, fetishisations and mystifications. Marx’s efforts, theoretical as well as organisational, show that the practice of dialectics not merely provides the necessary orientation in thinking which eventually amounts to what Lacan called ‘vacillating the appearances’, but is as such indistinguishable from political practice. Dialectics, one could say, is a perpetual process of working-through (I refer here to Freud’s notion of Durcharbeiten), which confronts political subjects with the imperative to work against the resistance of the system.

Again, for Marx, political practice begins on the level of thought and concepts. The dichotomy of theory and practice is thereby most certainly abolished. But the question remains to be answered of whether Marx’s endeavours continue or break with the founder of modern dialectics. Different positions regarding this question evidently imply different Marxisms: Hegel thereby remains a symptom, with respect to which every Marxist eventually has to take a position. Marx positioned himself in a most ambiguous manner, which explains why Hegel’s name continues to haunt Marxism as an unresolved problem and conflictual element, causing unrest in Marxist thought. Everyone is familiar with the famous phrases from the first volume of Capital, in which Marx summed up his critical relation to Hegel:

My dialectical method is, in its foundations, not only different from the Hegelian, but exactly opposite to it. For Hegel, the process of thinking, which he even transforms into an independent subject, under the name of ‘the Idea,’ is the creator of the real world, and 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.[3]

Things seem to be clear: the relation is not merely that of difference but of opposition. This opposition apparently consists in the fact that the materialist appropriation of dialectics inverts the causal relation between the ideal and the material, which consequently abolishes the primacy of the ideal. Material causality stretches its consequences into the world of ideas, introducing dynamics, instability and change into what various philosophical idealisms have always conceived as the static, stable and thus unchangeable. Or, we know that Marx does not speak here about sensual materiality but instead targets what his chapter on fetishism describes as the sinnliches übersinnliches Ding, the sensual-suprasensual thing. What he pinpoints is namely the materiality of relations, and more precisely the materiality of discourses, or modes of production, which organise sensuous materiality and overdetermine what takes place in the world of objects, the commodity universe, and more generally in all registers of human reality, be it subjective or social. The materiality Marx targets is thus already immaterial, a thorough negation of sensuality, the false immediacy of which he never ceased to denounce and question.[4] This is precisely what allies Marx’s critical project with that of Hegel’s dialectic. In this way it should be in no way surprising that, after insisting on methodological opposition, Marx nevertheless relativises his apparent rejection of Hegel:

I criticized the mystificatory side of the Hegelian dialectic nearly thirty years ago, at a time when it was still the fashion. But just when I was working at the first volume of Capital, the ill-humored, arrogant, and mediocre epigones who now talk large in educated German circles began to take pleasure in treating Hegel in the same way as the good Moses Mendelssohn treated Spinoza in Lessing’s time, namely as a ‘dead dog’.[5]


What Marx’s rejection attacks is all of the small academic masters, who determine the movement of opinion and bury Hegel as hastily as they turned his theory into fashion. In opposition to all these small (Anti-)Hegelians, the efficacy of Hegel’s thought and method lies in their untimely character. This is what Cole’s book extensively and perceptively demonstrates. Marx correctly intuited that ‘Hegel’ stands less for an ‘absolute master’ in the ivory tower of philosophy – this would make Hegel significantly less interesting – than for a battleground that one cannot enter without first taking a decision. Such a decision, as Marx highlights, consists precisely in assuming either an idealist or a materialist position. And even here there are ambiguities and nuances. Are we really materialists if we practise empiricist or economic reductionism in a universe where the very notion of matter has been significantly transformed and the assumption of immediate sensual experience is dramatically challenged? Does Hegel’s presumably ‘idealist’ dialectics not contain a series of crucial materialist lessons, which need to be exposed by means of focusing on what Marx described as its ‘rational kernel’? Doing away with Hegel involves more than simply dismissing yet another idealist philosopher. The move risks losing sight of the antagonisms and struggles immanent to thought as such. Even though one could critically question several formulations in these and other excerpts from Capital, it is perhaps more constructive to strengthen the accent on the immanent tension and conflictuality of thought, which is the true expression of dialectical movement. This is precisely where Andrew Cole’s engagement comes in.

Cole intervenes in the midst of the heated debate surrounding Hegel, not in order to call for a calming of passions or to seek some compromise or balance, but in order to expose a series of distortions which have sustained the postmodern resistance to dialectic.[6] It is in this context that Cole reaffirms the dialectic as a necessary tool for a truly materialist orientation in thinking and as an indispensable component of critique. In contrast to other famous attempts that reaffirm the dialectic by returning to Hegel,[7] Cole’s work reaches back to the forgotten medieval sources of the modern dialectic. As a result of this examination of the ‘dialectical link’ between medieval philosophy and Hegel, The Birth of Theory outlines an unprecedented reading of the history of dialectic which not only shows the significance of medieval philosophy in an entirely new light, but also delivers a fresh perspective on the complicity of Hegel’s ‘absolute idealism’ (as it continues to be labelled) and Marx’s historical materialism.

One of the central topics of discussion in The Birth of Theory is the opposition between hermeneutic interpretation and what the book’s concluding chapter extensively examines under the term ‘dialectical interpretation’ (p. 133).[8] Their main difference consists in the fact that hermeneutical interpretation privileges the production and the economy of sense, if one may so speak, knitting the web of meanings and moving within the interplay of significations. Such interpretation bypasses the kernel of a problematic that has preoccupied an entire tradition of modern thought from Descartes via Marx to Lacan and beyond: namely the gap that separates appearance from the real. Dialectical interpretation, on the other hand, circulates precisely around this gap. Thus Hegel’s greatest contribution to the general orientation of thinking and to the notion of critique in particular consists in the fact that he mobilised an apparently outdated method in an epoch governed by experimental science (Newton) and critical philosophy (Kant). By means of this mobilisation, Hegel’s entire philosophical effort consisted in showing the dialectical kernel intrinsic to modern ontology, epistemology and politics.

In this framework the problematic of becoming and the question of relational being become crucial. Nietzsche, whom militant anti-Hegelians such as Deleuze and Foucault considered the perfect antipode to Hegel, recognised in the notion of becoming the most important Hegelian invention,[9] a concept without which we would hardly have the Nietzsche, Deleuze or Foucault that we are all familiar with. Cole acknowledges and examines the details of this indebtedness in the first chapter of The Birth of Theory, significantly titled ‘The Untimely Dialectic’ (pp. 3–23), thereby openly arguing that if there were ever a paradigmatic case of an untimely thinker in the Nietzschean sense, it would be Hegel. For in opposition to hermeneutics, which remains excessively focused on the question of sense, to the extent that it confounds it with the real itself,[10] the dialectical interpretation recognises in conflictual becoming the main feature both of the concept and of the real. It focuses on the dynamic of the real and on the life of concepts, approaching them from the viewpoint of their relationality, instability and conflictuality. Hegelian dialectics thus ‘teaches us how to talk about concepts, how to describe their becomings and dissolutions in real time’ (p. 157). Alluding to the main accomplishment of psychoanalysis, another practice that is incomprehensible outside its historical and methodical continuity with the dialectical interpretation, one could say that, by detaching concepts from their psychological bearers, Hegel brought about the first consequential decentralisation of thinking.[11]

Hegel’s philosophy was surely misread, misunderstood and mistranslated, yet one should not conclude that we need to engage in reconstructing some ‘transcendental’ original, uncorrupted by the wrongdoings of translation or interpretation. Most recently with Freud it became clear that the dichotomy of original and translation should be abandoned in favour of a more sophisticated and dynamic relation between concepts and thought. In any case, erroneous translations have significantly shaped the perception of Hegelianism, and one cannot but recall the Italian wordplay traduttore-tradittore,[12] which associates the practice of translation with treason. Translations are never neutral, and one could say that the translator’s act of betrayal is all the more effectively overlooked when one assumes to undertake the necessary precautions against betraying the ‘authentic’ and ‘original’ meaning. Tendentious deformations are part of the structure of translation and they sneak into the text no matter how carefully translators may carry out their task under the waking eye of consciousness, since the structure of the original already concedes room for deformations.

Speaking of the link between deformation and translation, Freud famously associated both activities in his discussion of unconscious work (such as the intellectual work in dreams, joke techniques, symptom formations etc.) and more generally with thinking as such. Dream-work, for instance, translates the latent content of thoughts into their manifest content, which then constitutes the most evident component of the end product, the dream. Or, the dynamic and multiple achievements of this intellectual work are already codified in the corresponding German terms. Entstellung (deformation) literally means ‘to displace’ (ent-stellen), and Übersetzung (translation) ‘to transpose’ (über-setzen). In both cases we are dealing with a spatial dimension, where content is removed from one place and transferred to another. But Freud was less concerned with the translation of one content into another, their adequacy or inadequacy. This would indeed bind his technique of interpretation to hermeneutics, which, as mentioned, translates one meaning into another, seeking deeper (precisely latent) meaning behind the manifest surface. Instead, Freud introduced a method of interpretation which on the one hand targets the logic of this dynamic, its rational character, and on the other hand seeks the unconscious tendency demanding the distortions beyond the layers of meaning. In this way, deformation and translation become more than simple hermeneutical problems driving the proliferation of sense that presumably point toward some original or authentic meaning. They now appeared as operations in the service of unconscious desire, for which Freud argued that it assumes the role of negativity in the mental industry of meaning. When Lacan later spoke of ‘the dialectics of desire in the Freudian unconscious’,[13] he openly associated Freud’s method of interpretation with the horizon Hegel opened up in the history of dialectic.

One could object that this history has little to do with The Birth of Theory, from which the psychoanalytic problematic is entirely absent. Content-wise this is may be true, but not when it comes to Cole’s strategy, which consists precisely in focusing on symptomatic details in the history of dialectic. According to his reading, these details, such as errors in translation and their corresponding narratives of the history of dialectic, demonstrate the discrepancy between the way Hegel appears to his philosophical observers, whether they be pro-Hegelian, like Jameson and Žižek, or anti-Hegelian, like Foucault and Deleuze, and the tendency that guides Hegel’s own historical Entstellung-Übersetzung of premodern dialectic into modernity. For this is precisely Cole’s main effort in his book: to show that Hegel’s philosophical development, as well as his main contribution to philosophy, consists in a productive deformation (again in the psychoanalytic sense of the term) of the medieval dialectic, as it was progressively shaped in the historical sequence stretching from Plotinus via Proclus and Pseudo-Dionysus to Nicolas of Cusa (Chapter II, ‘The Medieval Dialectic’) – a series of thinkers who grounded the mystical tradition, this perfect opposite to what is usually imagined under the general label of medieval philosophy, namely scholasticism.

To repeat again, just as the task of the psychoanalyst consists less in translating manifest content back into latent content, and more in unveiling the logical mechanism through which the unconscious tendency reaches satisfaction in and through the distortive intellectual achievements of unconscious work, The Birth of Theory dives into the seemingly familiar history of dialectic, not in order to translate the manifest Hegel (that we all believe we are familiar with) back into some more authentic, genuine and true latent Hegel, but to reveal both the affirmation and transformation of dialectic in Hegel’s philosophical act. For some this may sound counter-intuitive, but Cole situates the birth of dialectical materialism in this Hegelian act, showing in what precise way Hegel determines the overall displacements that marked post-Hegelian thought, while also revealing what in Hegel was subject to repression.

Cole draws attention to the striking absence of detailed discussion of medieval philosophy in the history of dialectic. Its predominant narratives simply blend-out the specific continuity between the medieval and the Hegelian dialectic, both of which depart from the dyad ‘identity/difference’. The Birth of Theory on the other hand returns to the Neo-Platonic and mystic sources in order to propose an alternative historical narration of dialectic and its vicissitudes, while in the same move revealing the properly materialist features of Hegel’s appropriation of medieval dialectic in the epoch of critique. It should go without saying that the critical tradition, inaugurated by Kant’s systematic confrontation with metaphysical dogmatism, defined itself against the background of denouncing dialectic as an anachronistic remnant of scholasticism. Yet the actual novelty and power of the medieval dialectic lies elsewhere than in its scholastic practice. The Middle Ages sustained two distinct dialectical traditions, of which the scholastic one remains in continuity with the Antique notion of dialectics, understood as a mere rhetorical practice, whereas the mystical one takes off from a groundbreaking displacement in ontology, which extends dialectical features to the very structure of being. In this way, the mystical tradition introduces something that appears scandalous from the perspective of traditional ontology, but which will play a crucial role both in Hegel’s philosophy and Marx’s critique of political economy, namely the concept of unstable and relational being.

From the perspective of Cole’s developments the main question to ask is, then, not so much what Hegel thought, which returns us back to the dyad of manifest and latent content, but, more importantly, where he thought, a question targeting both the actual historical circumstances in which Hegel’s thought took shape and the general topological framework that supports the deployment of dialectical thought. More precisely, with Hegel it becomes evident that the space of dialectics is importantly marked by the problem of negativity, which makes this space significantly more dynamic and discontinuous than the ordered space of critique that Kant describes in his transcendental aesthetics. The strength of Hegel’s thought and method resides in the place from which he thinks, and this place is intimately linked with Hegel’s recognition of the spatio-temporal synchronicity or coexistence of feudalism and capitalism: ‘Hegel thinks at the temporal conjunction of the medieval and the modern’ (p. xv). This is what characterises the historical-political circumstances in which Hegel’s critique of German political conditions took shape, and Cole convincingly shows that Hegel addresses the conjunction in question over and over again throughout his work. The intertwining of two distinct epochs and social modes of production enabled Hegel to introduce a concept of history in which a non-teleological becoming driven by contradiction and negativity, rather than some presupposed teleological orientation toward a higher political good, expectedly plays the central role.[14] In other words, Hegel indeed takes off from a vision of history, which acknowledges non-linearity and uneven development as two defining features of its consistency and becoming.

Being situated in the grey zone between different historical epochs is also what Hegel has in common with another major dialectician discussed in The Birth of Theory, Plotinus, who thinks at the historical conjuncture of Antiquity and the early Middle Ages, and whose main achievement consists in the fact that he ‘expands dialectic beyond rhetoric and the pondering of “both sides” to ontology, metaphysics and cosmology’ (p. 36). Plotinus brought the developments and problems that preoccupied ancient Greek philosophy to a critical limit and in the very same move inaugurated a new historical sequence; he brought about a discontinuity, which can be broken down into the transformation of dialectic from rhetorical practice to the dialectic of identity and difference. This concerns not only the movement of language but also and above all the movement of the highest metaphysical principle (the One, the Absolute). Hence, while for the classical Greek philosophers the dialectical was restricted to discourse and became manifest in the confrontation of two competing positions – a confrontation, which tore thinking out of its immersion in the unstable and deceiving world of appearances and oriented it toward stable and unalterable metaphysical truths – for Plotinus and the mystical tradition ontological reality itself contains a deadlock, which should be categorised as dialectical (see Chapter 2, ‘The Medieval Dialectic’). Dialectic henceforth stands for a specific encounter of thinking with the dynamic becoming of ontological entities; or to phrase it following Lacan, who equally recognised the importance of medieval mysticism and Neo-Platonism, language touches the real when its immanent disclosure meets ontological disclosure.[15] With Plotinus dialectic became the privileged method that determines the points of such an encounter; it is no longer preoccupied exclusively with the contradictions between and within different intellectual opinions (which was still the case in the Platonic and Aristotelian tradition).

Discussing a crucial excerpt from Enneads (5.3), where the Absolute (the metaphysical One) is most openly conceived as a figure of (non-)relation, Cole formulates the core of Plotinus’s displacement in ontology in the following manner: ‘Plotinus offers … the first example of a specific dialectical process, whereby difference emerges from the repetition of the same’ (p. 9). With the extension of dialectics from the conduct of discourse in polemical confrontation with opinions to the recognition of the internal dynamic of metaphysical reality, Plotinus formulates an unprecedented problematic which obtained its modern rearticulation in Hegel. Various Post-Hegelian philosophies and Marx’s critique of political economy developed this problematic further, as did other disciplines such as structural linguistics and psychoanalysis. As already mentioned, this problematic can be covered by the term ‘relative being’, which Plotinus definitively expressed in the complicated and dysfunctional relation between identity and difference. With the invention of medieval dialectic, an entire ontology is for the first time grounded upon the full recognition of the inscription of negativity into being:[16] ‘the repetition of identity, and the failure of such repetition to produce a copy, is the way to difference and multiplicity’ (p. 156, my emphasis). It should go without saying that this ontological lapsus, this dimension of failure inscribed into being as its defining feature, stands at the very core of the modern philosophical, epistemological and political problematic.

The Birth of Theory is evidently marked by an internally doubled return: a return to Hegel by means of a return to the medieval dialectic. In this way, the philosophical break initiated by Hegel and perpetuated in post-Hegelian theory appears in a new light. By the term ‘theory’, Cole understands ‘the move away from philosophy within philosophy’ (p. xi), or ‘the move from Kant to Hegel’ (p. xii). Theory thus stands for the consequences of Hegel’s inventive renewal of dialectical thought in the universe of critique, a move from critique to dialectic,[17] which is evidently not a move backward, even if Hegel renews a method that his contemporaries considered premodern and obsolete. Hegel’s move contains a materialist turn, which brings him suspiciously close to Marx. This is precisely one of the main endeavours of The Birth of Theory, to make a case against the repeated opposition of Marx and Hegel, seeing in the latter a ‘not-yet-materialist’ and in the former a ‘no-longer-Hegelian’. One might summarise Cole’s position in this polemic by saying that The Birth of Theory could also bear the title (or subtitle) The Materialist Rebirth of Dialectic. In order to become materialist, the medieval dialectic of identity and difference needs to be reinvented in the modern context, and it needs to be reinvented twice: first with Hegel, who uses it as a critical tool to expose the persistence of feudalism in the modern world and thereby reveals an important feature of capitalist modernity – uneven development; and then with Marx, who provides the first systematic application of materialist dialectic to capitalism in order to expose its structural contradictions, one of the essential ones being again – uneven development. If Hegel and Marx still appear to us as different, the reason for this appearance should be sought in the historical circumstances, in which their thought took shape and to which they applied the same dialectic: German feudalism in the case of Hegel, English capitalism in the case of Marx.

Return to the Middle Ages in order to unveil a materialist Hegel? Nothing seems more bewildering and scandalous from the perspective of conventional readings of the history of dialectic and the history of materialism. One of the truly groundbreaking intellectual achievements of The Birth of Theory lies precisely in challenging such conventions. Of course, Cole pursues a double agenda here: elaborating a materialist reading of Hegel, which goes hand in hand with a speculative reading of Marx. By affirming the strong continuity between Marx and Hegel on the terrain of dialectic, Marx’s critical project is contrasted to its predominant readings, whether Marxist or non-Marxist, which often enough tend to conceive of Marx’s materialism all too naively, one could almost say in a vulgar empiricist way. Marx is a materialist thinker precisely because he thinks dialectically, meaning that he thinks the contradictions of his time and space using the same method with which Hegel had already thought the contradictions of his time and space. The modern materialist turn in the history of dialectic thus begins already with Hegel and not only with Marx, this self-proclaimed corrector of Hegel, who embraced his reinvented dialectic only on condition that it learn to walk on its feet. This is what Hegel had already taught the medieval dialectic (and, one could add, Plotinus the ancient Greek dialectic). Yet one cannot recognise this great accomplishment so long as one sticks to the habitual Marxist parlance, according to which Hegel mystified dialectic and therefore provided a merely distorted expression of the contradictions that left their mark on modernity.

In order to demonstrate the materialist character of Hegel’s reinvention of medieval dialectics, Cole admirably returns to the two most popular and often enough all-too-hastily commented motives in Hegel and Marx, the dialectics of lord and bondsman, on the one hand, and fetishism, on the other. Recalling the historical circumstances in which Hegel’s philosophy took shape, Cole shows that Hegel’s choice of terms does not address some transhistoric conflictuality or invariant of class struggle but in fact engages in an exemplary materialist critique of feudal institutions and social relations. One tends to forget the banal yet, for the correct overall understanding of Hegel’s thought, crucial fact that ‘Hegel effectively lived in the Middle Ages’ (p. 66) and that, by taking industrialised England as the universal model of modernity, Marx overlooked the fact that Hegel’s engagement with his historical-political surroundings had already articulated a strikingly similar critique of ideology. By acknowledging the actual social circumstances which influenced Hegel’s philosophical maturity, Cole draws attention to the aforementioned problem of uneven development, which has significantly marked modernity, and which continues to leave its mark on the present development of capitalism. Today, for instance, one equally tends to forget that Wall Street should not be taken as representative of the entire complexity of capitalist reality and that the co-existence of heterogeneous temporalities and historical epochs, the persistence not only of elements of feudalism but also of slavery, needs to be thought again and again as one of the defining features of the proverbial capitalist hybridism.

Cole’s expertise as a medievalist enables him to expose connections and continuities where others might see nothing but differences, discontinuities and incompatibilities; thus he repeatedly denounces historical and theoretical amnesia, the reproduction of clichés and oversimplifications, when it comes to the relation between medieval and modern thought; this is even more strikingly the case when it comes to the persistence of medieval relations of domination and subjection in the modern political and economic framework. In the first volume of Capital Marx rigorously traces the progressive historical transformation of the feudal lord into the capitalist, and the bondsman into the proletarian. Or, hand in hand with the social implementation of the capitalist mode of production goes a certain afterlife of feudal relations, their adaptation to the new conditions: ‘If feudalism comes to an end, we can be certain that a certain feudal contradiction survives well into the age of capital, and it is this contradiction that remains central to Marxist thought’ (p. 84). Marx was on the trail of this contradiction when he recognised in the capitalist a new social embodiment of the old master, and when he referred to the ‘misty realm of religion’[18] as well as to the notion of the fetish in order to draw attention to the continuous mystification of actual social contradictions.

Reading Marx we constantly observe that he proceeds in a much more ‘speculative’ way than the ‘down to Earth’ Marxists would be willing to admit. There is a deep misunderstanding regarding the effort to think abstract thought in conjunction with concrete historical circumstances and material conditions. Marx was no vulgar materialist. And there is a strikingly similar misunderstanding regarding Hegel’s effort to think concrete historical circumstances and material conditions in a speculative way. This does not mean that he ‘mystified’ the actually existing contradictions; on the contrary, he rigorously demonstrated that only by moving beyond the world of appearances and empirical materiality can one expose these contradictions in the first place. Hegel was no vulgar idealist. Instead he demonstrated, just like Marx in his mature critical project, the complex intertwining of empirical materiality and discursive materiality, and he found in the medieval dialectic the privileged tool for the analysis (in the sense of decomposition and even demystification) of appearances. This is the precise point at which Hegel adds a materialist twist to the medieval dialectic. He uses it in order to think ‘the temporal conjunction of the medieval and the modern’ (p. xv), uneven development as a defining feature of history, or, in other words, the coexistence of different historical orders within the same epoch. The German-speaking lands in Hegel’s time serve as the paradigmatic historical example of such temporal non-synchronicity, but the point is that the same structural feature defines today’s globalised capitalism. This is where ‘Hegel himself appears most Marxist’ (p. xiii). Cole thereby seems to make a case for the recognition of a double historical foundation of the critique of political economy. Marx’s insight into the contradictory logic of the capitalist mode of production is surely indispensable; but we also need Hegel’s critical insights into the insufficiencies of classical political economy, which had already prevented Adam Smith from recognising the link between the rise of capital and the necessity of uneven historical development. Thus the critique of political economy is anchored in the recognition of historical coexistence, maybe even in the historical fusion of premodern relations of domination with the mobilisation of modern scientific knowledge for the organisation of social production.

The critical attack on political economy is indubitably the most crucial feature that unites Marx and Hegel. According to Marx’s criticism, the idyllic scenarios which depict the modern reign of ‘Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham’[19] distort the actual picture in which capitalism both structurally and empirically perpetuates serfdom, inequality and dispossession; whereas, by introducing ‘Bentham’ – a name that stands less for the presumably narcissistic nature of human beings than it does for the self-love of capital itself – Marx indicates the structural tendency of capital to self-valorise. Hegel, in his turn, invalidates Smith’s political-economic accounts in relation to his own historical time and space, which is neither the time nor, evidently, the space of English capitalism. Only from the dialectical perspective can one recognise that political economy is structurally blind to the contradictions of the commodity-form and to the fact that it perpetuates their mystifications with its entire conceptual apparatus. Marx’s prosopopoeia of commodities in the conclusion of the section on fetishism thus shows that the language of political economists merely rephrases everyone’s spontaneous conduct toward the objects of value and is ultimately the same as the hypothetical speech of commodities.[20]

While Marx indeed believed that he had demystified dialectics, Cole shows that he had ‘merely’ applied it to new political-economic conditions, and in doing so had recapitulated Hegel by revealing the persistence of premodern forms of domination deep within modernity. On the historical level, Marx thematised this historical continuity in his discussion of so-called primitive accumulation, while on the formal level the same continuity is addressed through the notion of fetish – but here, too, Marx had an important predecessor in Hegel, whose early critique of feudalism revolves around the fetishist function of the host. Cole thereby outlines the homology, if one may so speak, between the Eucharist and commodity, the former being ‘the fetishised medieval commodity – the figure yet screen for uneven social relations and relations of expropriation and alienation’ (p. 93), just like the products of labour in capitalism, for which Marx showed that they effectively blur the contradiction between labour and capital. The logic of the fetish remains unchanged and the main problem continues to revolve around the ‘commodity’s two bodies’ (p. 98).

From the viewpoint of fetishism, even though the object of fetishisation changes, it becomes clear that Marx and Hegel are united by a strange parallax: ‘what the Middle Ages are to Hegel, modernity is to Marx … both stand on the same side of theory, dialectic, and critique, and they are only divided (or inverted) by history’ (p. 102). When it comes to fetishism this displacement from Hegel to Marx and from feudalism to capitalism reflects the well-known reversal within social relations that Marx describes as the ‘social relations between things’.[21] This, however, does not mean that relations between humans have been repressed, reduced or simply abolished but, on the contrary, that the thingly character of these relations is effectively overlooked: ‘it is not that the relations between persons are replaced by relations between things …. It is rather the opposite: the relations between things now appear as relations between persons’ (p. 95). This is what non-dialectical thought systematically overlooks in the world of appearances in which it is embedded; and by missing this sophistication in the constitution of social bonds, it simultaneously ignores the immanent decentralisation (specifically, alienation) of thinking, its non-identity with itself. Again, reality and thinking are both immanently dialectical, meaning that they are significantly marked by a fundamental gap between the way they appear to the conscious observer (this is, the level of political economy, but also the level to which Kant’s critique restricted philosophy) and the way their structuration reveals itself to thinking from the dialectical point of view. It was none other than Hegel who taught philosophy to think systematically within this gap, and it is in this precise sense that even the most passionate anti-Hegelians remain deeply indebted to Hegel. Not to mention Marxism, for which Hegel conceptually and methodologically remains a crucial condition of possibility.

The present review does not pretend to cover the rich conceptual developments, theoretical reorientations and critical perspectives that make up Andrew Cole’s impressive contribution. It restricts itself to those aspects which envisage Marx’s dialectical method in its broader historical framework and affirm the underlying philosophical alliance between speculative philosophy and the critique of political economy, or, if one prefers, between theoretical practice and political practice. However, despite this selective philosophical presentation there should be no doubt that Andrew Cole has produced an indispensable classic of the broadest possible interest. Without The Birth of Theory we would continue to lack crucial historical and conceptual insights into the quarrels and intricacies that have so heavily influenced the orientations of modern theory. Moreover, these also determine the space in which Marxist thought has operated since its very beginnings. Andrew Cole offers a captivating demonstration of the efficacy of dialectical thought. This is accompanied by a series of new insights into the history of dialectics that prompt us to look anew at this tradition and to critically rewrite it. The Birth of Theory is therefore obligatory reading for anyone involved in the reaffirmation of critical and materialist thought today.


Brecht, Bertolt 2004, ‘On Hegelian Dialectics’, available at: <http://www.autodidactproject.org/other/hegel-brecht.html&gt;, accessed 20 May 2016.

Freud, Sigmund 2001, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume 8, Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious, translated from the German under the General Editorship of James Strachey in collaboration with Anna Freud, London: Vintage Books.

Jameson, Fredric 2010, Valences of the Dialectic, London: Verso.

Koyré, Alexandre 1957, From the Closed World to the Infinite Universe, Baltimore, MD: The John Hopkins University Press.

Lacan, Jacques 1998, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, translated by Alan Sheridan, New York: W.W. Norton.

Lacan, Jacques 2001, Autres écrits, Paris: Éditions du Seuil.

Lacan, Jacques 2006, Écrits, translated by Bruce Fink, New York: W.W. Norton.

Lacan, Jacques 2007, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XVII: The Other Side of Psychoanalysis, translated by Russell Grigg, New York: W.W. Norton.

Marx, Karl 1990, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. Volume One, translated by Ben Fowkes, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Milner, Jean-Claude 2002, Constats, Paris: Éditions Gallimard.

Nietzsche, Friedrich 2001, The Gay Science, edited by Bernard Williams, translated by Josefine Nauckhoff, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Whitehead, Alfred North 1978, Process and Reality, New York: The Free Press.

Žižek, Slavoj 2013, Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism, London: Verso.

[1] Whitehead 1978, p. 39.

[2] See, for instance, Lacan 1998, p. 246. Lacan uses the example in order to explain alienation.

[3] Marx 1990, p. 102.

[4] Modern science significantly transformed the notion of matter; what we are dealing with now is ‘matter without qualities’, whereby the materiality of (discursive) relations falls in this category. See Milner 2002, pp. 119–21.

[5] Marx 1990, pp. 102–3.

[6] Cole’s main polemic targets notably the Deleuzian and Foucauldian aversion to Hegel. It is no coincidence that the first chapter of Cole’s book (‘The Untimely Dialectic’) engages in a reading of Nietzsche, who was for Deleuze and Foucault the name to be opposed to Hegel and to dialectical thought in general.

[7] See notably Jameson 2010 and Žižek 2013.

[8] The Birth of Theory is divided into three sections (Theory, History, and Literature) containing two interventions each. Part One clarifies the notion of theory by moving from the ‘anti-philosophical’ to the openly dialectical Nietzsche and then examining the features of the medieval dialectic. Part Two discusses the relation between history and dialectics in both Hegel and Marx, exposing strong homologies in their positions. Finally, Part Three turns to what was for Deleuze the anti-dialectical discourse par excellence, literature, and explores Hegel’s critical reading of Adam Smith before moving on to the affirmation of dialectical interpretation against the historicism of the Frankfurt School, deconstruction and Deleuze and Guattari’s phenomenological style. In this way, the discussion of the dialectical method in Hegel and Marx reveals its potential for being extended to the experience of language in general. This could be a fruitful meeting-point for Cole’s developments with Lacan, whose theoretical work is known for its dialectical take on the problematic of language and, more generally, outlines a philosophy of language which is both dialectical and materialist.

[9] ‘Let us take … Hegel’s astonishing move, with which he struck through all logical habits and indulgences when he dared to teach that species concepts develop out of each other: with this proposition the minds of Europe were preformed for the last great scientific movement, Darwinism – for without Hegel there could be no Darwin. … We Germans are Hegelians even had there been no Hegel, insofar as we … instinctively attribute a deeper meaning and greater value to becoming and development than to what “is”’ (Nietzsche 2001, p. 218; emphases in original). I owe this reference to Nathaniel Boyd.

[10] This explains, among others, Lacan’s double insistence throughout his teaching that the real is rational (thereby repeating Hegel) and that the real forecloses sense (which is arguably no less a Hegelian claim).

[11] Brecht knew this: ‘I once read his book The Great Logic when I had rheumatism and I couldn’t move. It is one of the greatest humoristic works of world literature. It is about the customs of the concepts, these slippery, unstable, irresponsible existences; how they insult and fight each other with knives and then sit down together to supper as if nothing had happened. They enter so to say in pairs, each is married to its opposite, and they take care of their business as pairs, i.e. they sign contracts as a pair, sue as a pair, attack and break in as a pair, write books and make depositions as a pair, specifically as a totally quarrelsome, disunited pair!’ (Brecht 2004).

[12] Quoted by Freud in his book on jokes; see Freud 2001, p. 121.

[13] See Lacan 2006, pp. 671–702.

[14] This is yet another familiar difference between the Kantian and the Hegelian concept of history. By drawing attention to Hegel’s recognition of historical synchronicity of different modes of production, in other words, the persistence of premodernity within modernity, The Birth of Theory lays the necessary foundations for challenging the standardised (and extremely superficial) readings of Hegel’s philosophy of history as some kind of hyper-teleology.

[15] The word ‘disclosure’ addresses the problem Lacan strived to address with his notion of ‘non-all’. Slavoj Žižek, whose ontological developments follow this Lacanian stance, usually refers to the term ‘incompleteness’. In any case, one should keep in mind that none of the terms presupposes or implies some lost originary ‘closure’, ‘totality’ or ‘completeness’. On the contrary, the disclosure is recognised as constitutive, and this is precisely the point where Plotinus’s conception of a dynamic metaphysical One against the background of the dyad ‘identity/difference’ anticipates the modern epistemic move from the ‘closed world’ to the ‘infinite universe’, in which the mystical tradition played a significant role. See Koyré 1957.

[16] From this perspective, Plato’s Sophist can be retrospectively identified as the privileged predecessor of this recognition. Or rather, what in Plato remained at the level of mere intuition, however correct, became in Plotinus’s philosophy a constitutive feature of the Absolute.

[17] More precisely, from critique that abandoned dialectic to dialectic that appropriated critique.

[18] Marx 1990, p. 165; another significant example: ‘The starting-point of the development that gave rise both to the wage-labourer and to the capitalist was the enslavement of the worker. The advance made consisted in a change in the form of this servitude, in the transformation of feudal exploitation into capitalist exploitation’ (Marx 1990, p. 875; my emphasis). Conclusion: it is precisely exploitation that perpetuates premodern forms of mastery within modernity.

[19] Marx 1990, p. 280.

[20] See Marx 1990, pp. 176–7.

[21] Marx 1990, p. 166.