Dialectical Materialism – The philosophy of Marxism to change the world
Though never claiming to be a crystal ball that allows us to see all aspects of future processes in their manifold possible forms, dialectical materialism provides a compass that allows socialists to understand events in their interconnectedness and most importantly, to intervene in them with a programme that can link immediate struggles to an explanation of the need for a full socialist transformation of society, in Britain and internationally.
By Robin Clapp, first published in Socialism Today (Issue 257, May 2022), monthly journal of the Socialist Party (CWI England & Wales).
Dialectical materialism is still the most modern method of thought that exists. As Leon Trotsky observed in his 1939 pamphlet Marxism in Our Time, if a “theory correctly estimates the course of development and foresees the future better than other theories, it remains the most advanced theory of our time, be it even scores of years old”.
Dialectics is the science of the general laws of motion and development of nature, human society and thought. It was and remains a revolutionary philosophy that challenges capitalism in every sphere, and in so doing, substitutes science for dreams and prejudice.
Marxism developed the science of perspectives. Through applying the method of dialectical materialism we can study the complex processes constantly unfolding and evolving in capitalist society and the workers’ movements everywhere, in order to intervene in these developments both with a clear political analysis and a programme that arms the working class with the ideas needed to progress the struggle at each stage.
MATERIALISM VERSUS IDEALISM
People have always sought to understand the world they live in through observing nature and trying to learn by generalising their day-to-day experiences. This is called philosophy, or having a personal philosophical outlook on life.
The history of philosophy shows a division into two camps – idealism and materialism. The former assert that thought (consciousness) is primary and that people’s actions stem from abstract thoughts, devoid of material and historical context.
It was Marx and Engels who first fully challenged this conception, explaining that an understanding of the world has to start not from the ideas that exist in people’s heads in any historical period, but from the real, material conditions in which these ideas arise. Nature itself is historical at every level. No part of nature simply exists; it has a pre-history, comes into being, changes and develops, and finally ceases to exist, being superseded by other developments. Aspects of nature may appear to be fixed and stable in a state of equilibrium for a shorter or longer time, but none is permanently so.
Marx and Engels based their materialism upon the ideas and practice of the great materialist philosophers of the 18th century. The ‘renaissance’ in the 16th century with its growth of cultural and scientific enquiry was both a cause of and an effect of the early growth of capitalism. In Friedrich Engels’ words, “science rebelled against the church; the bourgeoisie could not do without science and therefore had to join the rebellion”. (Socialism Utopian and Scientific)
Astronomy, mechanics, physics, anatomy and physiology feverishly developed as areas of separate study, with the consequence that age-old beliefs in an inviolable God directing everything were severely undermined.
Galileo for instance began to discover some of the physical properties of the universe and revealed that the planets revolved around the sun. Later, Isaac Newton’s theories of gravity and laws of physical motion uncovered the mysteries of movement and mechanics. The 17th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes argued it was impossible to separate thought from matter that thinks.
Marx declared that this enlightenment had ‘cleared men’s minds’ for the great French revolution in 1789 and the ‘age of reason’. But Engels crucially added: “The specific limitation of this materialism lay in its inability to comprehend the universe as a process, as matter undergoing uninterrupted development”. (Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy)
He and Marx, in a world historic advance, were to fuse the brilliant discoveries in scientific materialism with dialectical thought, creating in the process the most revolutionary and far-reaching theory for both explaining and then changing the world.
The German philosopher Georg Hegel in the early 19th century resurrected dialectical thinking from its Greek origins and cast light again on a long-dormant truth – that ideas and their real existence move through a series of processes. Hegel was, however, a proponent of idealism, conceiving of thought, things and their development as the realised images of a ‘supreme idea’ (God) existing somewhere universal, separate and eternal.
Hugely impressed by Hegel’s dialectic, Marx and Engels came to realise its incompleteness as a guide to understanding the movements of the real world and its historical processes. They were able to turn this confusion on its head through the fusing of the dialectic with a materialist conception of history, with Marx stressing: “To me the idea is nothing else than the material world reflected in the human mind and translated into forms of thought”. (Afterword to the 2nd German edition of Das Capital)
The material world is real and develops through its own natural laws. Thought is a product of matter, without which ideas cannot exist. Flowing from this, it is clear that Marxism must reject so-called ‘eternal truths’, religions and spirits (idealism).
All theories are relative, grasping one side of reality and existing in a precise historical framework. Initially a theory may be assumed to possess universal application. But at a certain point, deficiencies in that theory are found. These have to be explained and new theories are then developed which can account for the exceptions. But importantly the new theories not only supersede (negate) the old, but also incorporate them in a new qualitative form.
For example, in the field of biological evolution, Marxists are neither biological nor cultural determinists. There is a dialectical interaction between our genes and our environment.
The international scientific research ‘human genome project’ set out to identify and map all the genes of the human genome that are passed on from one human generation to the next. Some biologists asserted that this would reveal individual genes determining our intelligence and our behaviour patterns ranging from sexual preference to criminality and even political preference.
There have also been arguments put forward that a person’s position in society would be largely pre-determined by their genes and unalterable. However, any attempts to locate individual or even groups of genes for ‘intelligence’ or behaviour patterns like those mentioned above have failed. And any attempt to define social position as being genetically determined has been exposed as a pure consequence of the ideological stance of the biologists involved, which in turn has stemmed from the capitalist class seeking justification for the inequality within their system.
On the contrary it remains the case that environmental influences are the most powerful forces in shaping the way humans act and the differences between us, and that genes and the environment don’t work as separate influences but rather constantly interact with each other. Marx and Engels famously wrote, “it is not consciousness that determines existence, but social existence that determines consciousness”. (The German Ideology).
WHAT IS DIALECTICAL THINKING?
Dialectics is the philosophy of motion. The dialectical method of analysis enables us to study natural phenomena, the evolution of society and human thought itself, as processes of development based upon motion and contradiction.
What stage is world capitalism passing through, what character will the next recession have, how powerful is the modern working class, how can new workers’ parties be built and under what conditions might we expect big workplace struggles to break out? Marxists use dialectics to examine all of the conflicting factors in every process in order to form perspectives that enable us then to intervene most effectively in the unfolding class struggle.
The roots of dialectical thought can be traced back to ancient Greek philosophers. Classical Greek society, despite its prodigious advances in mathematics, especially geometry, was not yet at that stage of technical and material development that would allow the dissection and study of natural processes in their separate parts. Therefore nature tended to be viewed in its entirety as an interrelated whole, dialectically. This was expressed by Heraclitus who famously declared: “All things flow, all change”.
Even a cursory study of the natural world reveals the simple truth of this observation. We are born, we live and we die. Nothing is permanent except motion itself.
Astronomers are transfixed as super-telescopes allow us to witness the birth and then death of distant stars, while the smallest subatomic particles which are in a constant state of ferment, have a fleeting existence, some known as virtual particles living for a billionth of a second. Neutrons change into protons and back again, ceaselessly altering their identity.
In the science laboratory manifestations of the dialectic are everywhere. Every GCSE student knows that liquid water alters its form into ice or steam depending upon temperature change. These superficially different substances are however only different manifestations of the motion of the same water molecules.
The disciplines of science cannot be restricted to rigid classifications. There is a constant mixing and inter-penetrating of disciplines that reflects the real inter-connectedness of the living universe.
In mathematics too, a dialectical approach is indispensable. ‘Common sense’ tells us that curved and straight lines are different. Our eyes even seem to confirm this as truth. But higher mathematics and differential calculus show that under certain circumstances, both can be treated using a single mathematical equation.
Although most scientists, excepting those very few who steadfastly hold to creationist beliefs, naturally and unconsciously think dialectically in pursuit of their research, it quickly becomes a very different question in the field of politics.
For the philosophers and apologists of capitalism to openly espouse dialectical thinking in this realm would be very dangerous, for it would risk exposing the transience of their system.
Explained in a Marxist manner, the development of all past and present forms of class society would show that at certain moments in history when the mode of production comes into acute conflict with the mode of exchange, economic crises, heightened levels of class struggle and even wars and revolutionary movements can follow.
The forms of class struggle have changed through different historical epochs, but the fundamental struggle over the division of the ‘surplus value’ (the new value created by workers in excess of the wages they are paid) between exploiter and exploited has been a continuous line from the early slave societies to the present day.
In trying to undermine the revolutionary theory of dialectical materialism, capitalist theoreticians and philosophers cloak themselves in the straightjacket of metaphysical thought, or ‘formal logic’.
These methods of reasoning tend to examine ‘form’ over and above ‘content’, and abstract the form as if it were unchanging. Translated into politics, this limited thinking process often becomes a justification for the status quo that rejects sudden changes and sponsors instead the idea of almost imperceptible organic evolution.
When in 2010 revolutionary uprisings of Tunisian and then Egyptian workers suddenly exploded (the ‘Arab Spring’), capitalist analysts had little conception of either their immediate or background causes. The uprisings came from ‘out of the blue’ as far as most ‘experts’ were concerned, yet Marxists, armed with a dialectical understanding that allowed us to see the anger boiling under the surface across the Middle East, were not blindsided by these rapidly escalating social explosions.
This is indeed an age of sharp turns and sudden changes and our role is to be able to prepare for many more stormy events, at least partially insuring us, in Trotsky’s words, with the ability of “foresight over astonishment”.
However, formal logic has its place in human thought and science. It was indispensable in the 18th century in assisting doctors to learn how separate human body organs functioned and also in the spheres of mechanics and engineering. Empirical research (ie based on observations and experience) in science is often the foundation for great breakthroughs, but as we progress from simple study through trial and error, to having an understanding of the interaction of processes through motion, we see the world as it is – an interrelated and constantly changing whole.
No aspect of life is ever ‘black or white’ and cause and effect are not polar opposites as we may assume in our daily lives, but are constantly merging, mixing and melting into each other, all the time. Trotsky’s comparison of formal logic with dialectics as being the difference between a still photograph and a continuous film was very apt.
For instance we often describe an election result as a mere snapshot, a moment, but while it provides us with the facts of what happened on that day, it tells us little about the myriad underlying causes of that result and less about how subsequent events may decisively negate or strengthen that outcome.
THE LAWS OF THE DIALECTIC
Based upon the laws of motion, dialectics enables us to interpret events and the natural world in their connections. From conception to death there is never a moment when our physical development, thoughts and mental growth are still. We evolve and refine our ideas against experiences, casting aside those thoughts that no longer correspond to our outlook and priorities.
Marxism is not a dogma and we reject the concept of economic determinism – the idea that the course of history neatly unfolds only through variations in the economic cycle. The theory of dialectical materialism represents generalised reality. Only motion is absolute – even the laws of dialectics are relative and variable. Engels stressed this when he wrote: “How young the whole of human history is, and how ridiculous it would be to attempt to ascribe any absolute validity to our present views”. (Anti-Dühring)
But how specifically do the laws of dialectical materialism apply in relation to a study of society? For Marxists active in the struggle to bring about the end of capitalism and the birth of socialism, this is a question of paramount importance. Socialist Party members are not armchair academics, but class fighters who learn to think and apply ideas dialectically in order to understand the actions of our class enemy, gauging the consciousness of the different sections of the working class so we can determine our strategy and tactics and develop a programme that arms workers and youth with the tools necessary to bring about the socialist transformation of society.
What are the general laws of dialectical materialism beyond the primary idea that everything is constantly changing? If dialectics is the theoretical toolkit of Marxists, what are these tools we use – whether consciously or more instinctively – and how do they assist us in both challenging capitalism and building the social forces necessary to overthrow it?
Marx and Engels elaborated three broad and interconnected laws of dialectics, each of which is continually at work. These guide us in refining our theoretical and practical tasks that face us in the fight for socialism.
It is not a question of ‘learning’ these rules and then going into the movement and selecting one or more from a crib sheet. Rather, dialectics is a way of thinking based upon seeing events in their connection. Somebody who yesterday expressed no interest in politics, or had illusions in their place in the system, can tomorrow come searching for us as a result of changes to their outlook based on losing their job, their home, an experience arising from their specific oppression as a woman, racism etc.
When intervening in the class struggle, Marxists identify the principal trends in the workers’ movement, including in the trade unions. We advocate slogans that are based on the idea of struggle around the issues that workers are facing. Under capitalism there is no such thing as a final victory for the working class, but each time the bosses are forced back, workers learn valuable lessons about their potential strength as a class, understand the value of solidarity, and begin to realise that they have the power to run society. Marxists are a powerful voice in helping to bring these lessons to the fore.