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Why is Marxist thought interested in dialectics?

This week, the MARX MEMORIAL LIBRARY describes why Marxist dialectics is a way to understand how the world works

OUR last article looked at materialism. This week we’ll move on to look at the “dialectical” part of dialectical materialism.

The term “dialectics” originates from the ancient Greek philosopher Plato. To him dialectics involved a discourse between two or more individuals who seek to understand a problem through careful, reasoned argument from different perspectives or disciplines.

Later philosophers, in particular G W Hegel, developed dialectics but in an abstract, idealist way. Marx turned Hegel “right side up,” rescuing “the rational kernel within the mystical shell.”

Marxist dialectics is an approach to understanding the way the material world (both human and “natural”) works. At its simplest, it starts from an awareness that nothing is eternally fixed or static. Even things that might appear to be motionless are, at another level (as with the atoms in a piece of metal or the individuals in society), in a constant state of flux. The way that things change is not just due to external forces but also to the often opposing (or contradictory) consequence of internal processes.

These ideas had already begun to be firmly embedded in science well before Marx — in physics, geology, evolutionary theory and in ecology. The significant contribution of Marx and Engels was to recognise them as a general principle which could be seen operating also in human affairs.

For example, dialectical processes can be seen in the interplay of economic, technological and social change which led to the emergence of capitalism from feudalism.

And within capitalism the search for profit involves the development of new technologies, which on the one hand displace jobs but may also create new products and markets.

At a more general level, capitalism itself is based on the exploitation by capitalists of a working class whose consciousness enables them to challenge the power of capital and, potentially, transform society into something new.

Throughout their work both Marx and Engels were concerned to understand not just the internal dynamics of human society but the relations of humans to the world as a whole. In Capital, Marx emphasised the way that humans are both part of nature and at the same time transform it, often with detrimental effects.

After Marx’s death, Engels developed the dialectical approach to the analysis of pre-capitalist societies with his book The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. He also extended dialectics from human society to the non-human world in a series of fragmentary essays which were published well after his death in a book called Dialectics of Nature.

These included a ground-breaking (and unfinished) essay entitled The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man, building on Darwin’s own observations on human evolution.

Just as materialism is an important antidote to philosophical idealism, so dialectics is counterposed to mechanical materialism. Mechanical materialism — including the notion that all changes are primarily the consequence of external influences — can be a useful approach in science, especially in physics.

But mechanical materialism, especially in biology and in human affairs, can lead to reductionism — the attempt to explain all phenomena in terms of processes at a “lower” level of organisation.

Reductionism “explains” society as the sum of the actions of individuals (think Margaret Thatcher’s “there is no such thing as society”); individuals by the functioning of their constituent organs which are in turn understandable only in terms of their cells, metabolic pathways, chemical processes, and ultimately by the behaviour of molecules, atoms and subatomic particles.

This can be a powerful, but never more than a partial, approach in science, which also needs to have regard to the behaviour of complex systems, emergent properties and the interactions between different levels of analysis.

More sinisterly, reductionism is also used (as in sociobiology and evolutionary psychology) to justify inequality, women’s subordination and racism on the basis of supposed inherited biological traits. We’ll need to explore this more fully in another article.

Dialectical materialism (sometimes abbreviated to “diamat”) also has its own controversies. Neither Marx nor Engels themselves ever used the term, which was coined by Joseph Dietzgen and developed by Georgi Plekhanov and developed subsequently by Lenin (and Stalin).

For a period it was articulated — both in the Soviet Union and by Marxists elsewhere — as a series of codified “laws” (first put forward by Engels) that became a kind of catechism; the transformation of quantity into quality; the unity and interpenetration of opposites; and the negation of the negation.

Debate continues among Marxists in particular with regard to the “dialectical” parts of the diamat. Most Marxists today would regard Engels’s “laws” as an overly mechanical formalisation — at best a retrospective generalisation about how the universe seems to function, that within the Soviet Union under Stalin became formulaic, repetitive; a barrier rather than an aid to creative and critical thinking. Some, however, still claim that these “laws” provide a powerful predictive tool to investigating the world.

Dialectical materialism is best seen as a valuable heuristic — a practical approach to problem solving, analysis and investigation, not guaranteed to be perfect but a useful rule of thumb, to be continually tested against experience.

There’s nothing particularly difficult about dialectics. To quote Engels, people “thought dialectically long before they knew what dialectics was, just as they spoke prose long before the term prose existed.”

A number of prominent scientists today assert the value of a dialectical approach in their professional work, for example in mathematics and systems theory, in the relationship between consciousness and the brain, in genetics and human evolution, and in ecology. And dialectics underpins revolutionary theory and practice.

Dialectical materialism is not a magic key to provide the right answer to any question. It is, rather, a fruitful approach to asking the right questions (and to questioning and challenging answers which have already been given) — about human society and about nature. It’s arguably central both to interpreting the world, and to changing it.


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