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CAN dialectics explain the world? The answer’s No. Dialectics, of itself can’t “explain” anything.
That’s the job of scientists, engineers, historians, investigative journalists, of people working on specific problems, researching or bringing knowledge together to provide an overview of how particular aspects of the universe function.
But forensic analysis — whether of the workings of the economy, of a particular problem in history, or the origins and spread of the Covid-19 virus — invariably reveals that dialectical principles are at work and a dialectical approach can be a vital aid in trying to understand ourselves and the universe around us.
Dialectics can help us ask the right questions. It can also help us question and challenge answers which have already been given — about human society and about nature.
Marxist dialectics is an approach to understanding the way the material world (both human and “natural”) works.
At its simplest, it starts from the perception 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 or change.
The way that things change is not just due to external forces but also to the often opposing (or “contradictory”) consequence of internal processes.
Dialectics originated as a way of thinking and of debating in ancient Greece, although the Chinese also developed a form of dialectics.
The idea of dialectics was taken up by the German philosopher Hegel and further developed by Marx and Engels in the form of materialist dialectics.
The “materialist” bit is important. Materialism holds that the world, the universe, “nature,” actually exists and that all phenomena — including consciousness — are ultimately the outcome of (though not reducible to) material processes.
It holds, also, that humans can, in principle, understand that world — often incorrectly and never completely (every advance in knowledge raises new questions which require answers) but that over time we can collectively work towards a better knowledge of what reality is and how it functions.
This is in contrast to ready-made religious “explanations” of the world in terms of some literally “supernatural” being, and to philosophical idealism which holds that all we can know is what is “inside our heads” — our sensations — and that if any “real” world does exist, it is essentially unknowable.
Dialectical ideas had already begun to be firmly embedded in science well before Marx — in physics (especially electro-magnetism and thermodynamics), in geology and Earth processes, and in evolutionary theory.
The significant contribution of Marx and Engels was to recognise them as general principles 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.
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 with understanding not just the internal dynamics of human society but the relations of humans to the world as a whole.
In Capital, Marx emphasised that humans are both part of nature and at the same time transform it, often with detrimental effects.
After Marx’s death, Engels developed a dialectical approach to the analysis of pre-capitalist societies with The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.
He also extended dialectics from human society to the non-human world in fragmentary essays which were published well after his death as 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 Charles 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. Newton’s laws of motion are an example.
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 or seeing biological organisms (including human beings) as machines.
Reductionism “explains” society as the sum of the actions of individuals (think Margaret Thatcher “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, then 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 (the Marxist philosopher John Lewis calls this “nothing-buttery”) is also used (as in sociobiology and evolutionary psychology) to justify inequality, racism and women’s subordination on the basis of supposed inherited biological traits.
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.
In the young Soviet Union, for example, together with the pressing need to increase agricultural productivity, this led to the rejection of “Western” genetics as both idealist (because nobody had ever “seen” a gene; their existence was merely assumed) and mechanical (because geneticists then held that genes determined individual and group characteristics by being passed on unchanged from generation to generation — a theory used by the Nazis to justify racial superiority, “ethnic cleansing” and the elimination of the “unfit”).
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.
Within the Soviet Union under Stalin dialectics 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 isn’t a magic key to provide the right answer to any question.
It is, rather, a powerful approach to asking the right questions (and to questioning and challenging answers which have already been given by others) — about human society and about nature.
It’s arguably central both to interpreting the world, and to changing it.
This year’s Engels Memorial Lecture on Thursday November 26 marks 200 years since his birth: Mary Davis will speak on “Women’s oppression, the origins of the family and the condition of the working class.” Details, together with previous Full Marx answers (this is number 75) can be found on the Library’s website www.marx-memorial-library.org.uk.
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