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Dialectical materialism (sometimes abbreviated diamat) is a philosophy of science and nature, based on the writings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, and developed largely in Russia and the Soviet Union. It was inspired by dialectic and materialist philosophical traditions. The main idea of dialectical materialism lies in the concept of the evolution of the natural world and the emergence of new qualities of being at new stages of evolution. As Z. A. Jordan notes, "Engels made constant use of the metaphysical insight that the higher level of existence emerges from and has its roots in the lower; that the higher level constitutes a new order of being with its irreducible laws; and that this process of evolutionary advance is governed by laws of development which reflect basic properties of 'matter in motion as a whole'."
The formulation of dialectical and historical materialism in the Soviet Union in the 1930s by Stalin and his associates (such as in Stalin's book Dialectical and Historical Materialism) became the "official" interpretation of Marxism. It was codified and popularized in text books that were required reading in the Soviet Union as well as the Eastern European countries it occupied. It was exported to China as the "official" interpretation of Marxism but has since then been widely rejected in China in the Soviet formulation.
A Soviet philosophical encyclopedia of the 1960s speaks of the evolution of complexity in nature as follows: "This whole series of forms (mechanical, physical, chemical, biological and social) is distributed according to complexity from lower to higher. This seriation expresses their mutual bonds in terms of structure and in terms of history. The general laws of the lower forms of the motion of matter keep their validity for all the higher forms but they are subject to the higher laws and do not have a prominent role. They change their activity because of changed circumstances. Laws can be general or specific, depending on their range of applicability. The specific laws fall under the special sciences and the general laws are the province of diamat." Each level of matter exists as a type of organization, in which the elements that make up a whole, or system, are marked by a specific type of interconnection.
The term dialectical materialism was coined in 1887, by Joseph Dietzgen, a socialist tanner who corresponded with Marx, during and after the failed 1848 German Revolution. As a philosopher, Dietzgen had constructed the theory of dialectical materialism independently of Marx and Engels. Casual mention of the term is also found in the biography Frederick Engels, by Karl Kautsky, written in the same year. Marx himself had talked about the "materialist conception of history", which was later referred to as "historical materialism" by Engels. Engels further exposed the "materialist dialectic" — not "dialectical materialism" — in his Dialectics of Nature in 1883. Georgi Plekhanov, the father of Russian Marxism, later introduced the term dialectical materialism to Marxist literature. Joseph Stalin further delineated and defined dialectical and historical materialism as the world outlook of Marxism-Leninism, and as a method to study society and its history.
The exact term was not used by Marx in any of his works, and controversy exists regarding the relationship between dialectics, ontology, and nature. Joseph Needham, the influential historian of science and a Christian who nonetheless was an adherent of dialectical materialism, suggested that a more appropriate term might be "dialectical organicism". For scholars working on these issues from a variety of perspectives see the works of Bertell Ollman, Roger Albritton, and Roy Bhaskar.
Historical background of materialism
Marx and Engels each began their adulthood as Young Hegelians, one of several groups of intellectuals inspired by the philosopher Hegel. But both soon concluded that Hegelian philosophy, at least as interpreted by their former colleagues, was too abstract and was being misapplied in attempts to explain the social injustice in recently industrializing countries such as Germany, France, and the United Kingdom, which was a growing concern in the early 1840s. In contrast to the conventional Hegelian dialectic of the day, which emphasized the idealist observation that human experience is dependent on the mind's perceptions, Marx developed Marxist dialectics, which emphasized the materialist view that the world of the concrete shapes socioeconomic interactions and that those in turn determine sociopolitical reality. Whereas some Hegelians blamed religious alienation (estrangement from the traditional comforts of religion) for societal ills, Marx and Engels concluded that alienation from economic and political autonomy, coupled with exploitation and poverty, was the real culprit. In keeping with dialectical ideas of such sequences as thesis-antithesis-synthesis, thesis-rejection-rejection, and action-reaction-reaction, Marx and Engels thus created an alternative theory, not only of why the world is the way it is, but also of which actions people should take to make it the way it ought to be. Marx summarized, "The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it." Dialectical materialism is thus closely related to Marx's and Engels's historical materialism (and has sometimes been viewed as synonymous with it).
Dialectical materialism is but an aspect of the broader subject of materialism. Marx's doctoral thesis concerned the atomism of Epicurus and Democritus, which is considered the foundation of materialist philosophy. Marx was also familiar with Lucretius's theory of clinamen.
Materialism asserts the primacy of the material world: in short, matter precedes thought. Materialism is a realist philosophy of science, which holds that the world is material; that all phenomena in the universe consist of "matter in motion," wherein all things are interdependent and interconnected and develop according to natural law; that the world exists outside us and independently of our perception of it; that thought is a reflection of the material world in the brain, and that the world is in principle knowable.
Marx presented his own materialist philosophy as an alternative to Hegel's idealism. However, Marx also criticized classical materialism as another idealist philosophy—idealist because of its transhistorical understanding of material contexts. According to the famous Theses on Feuerbach (1845), philosophy had to stop "interpreting" the world in endless metaphysical debates, in order to start "changing" the world, as was being done by the rising workers' movement observed by Engels in England (Chartist movement) and by Marx in France and Germany. Marx's view of human history was thus historical materialism. Marxist materialists tended to accord primacy to the class struggle. The ultimate sense of Marx's materialist philosophy is that philosophy itself must take a position in the class struggle based on objective analysis of physical and social relations. Otherwise, it will be reduced to spiritualist idealism, such as the philosophies of Immanuel Kant or Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.
The concept of dialectical materialism emerges from statements by Marx in the preface to his magnum opus, Capital. There Marx says he intends to use Hegelian dialectics but in revised form. He defends Hegel against those who view him as a "dead dog" and then says, "I openly avowed myself as the pupil of that mighty thinker [Hegel]." Marx credits Hegel with "being the first to present its [dialectic's] form of working in a comprehensive and conscious manner". But he then criticizes Hegel for turning dialectics upside down: "With him it is standing on its head. It must be turned right side up again, if you would discover the rational kernel within the mystical shell."
Marx's criticism of Hegel asserts that Hegel's dialectics go astray by dealing with ideas, with the human mind. Hegel's dialectic, Marx says, inappropriately concerns "the process of the human brain"; it focuses on ideas. Hegel's thought is in fact sometimes called dialectical idealism. Marx believed that dialectics should deal not with the mental world of ideas but with "the material world," the world of production and other economic activity.
For Marx, human history cannot be fitted into any neat a priori schema. He explicitly rejects the idea of Hegel’s followers that history can be understood as "a person apart, a metaphysical subject of which real human individuals are but the bearers". To interpret history as though previous social formations have somehow been aiming themselves toward the present state of affairs is "to misunderstand the historical movement by which the successive generations transformed the results acquired by the generations that preceded them". Marx's rejection of this sort of teleology was one reason for his enthusiastic (though not entirely uncritical) reception of Darwin’s theory of natural selection.
For Marx, dialectics is not a formula for generating predetermined outcomes, but is a method for the empirical study of social processes in terms of interrelations, development, and transformation. In his introduction to the Penguin edition of Marx’s Capital, Ernest Mandel writes, "When the dialectical method is applied to the study of economic problems, economic phenomena are not viewed separately from each other, by bits and pieces, but in their inner connection as an integrated totality, structured around, and by, a basic predominant mode of production."
Marx’s own writings are almost exclusively concerned with understanding human history in terms of systemic processes, based on modes of production (broadly speaking, the ways in which societies are organized to employ their technological powers to interact with their material surroundings). This is called historical materialism. More narrowly, within the framework of this general theory of history, most of Marx’s writing is devoted to an analysis of the specific structure and development of the capitalist economy.
For his part, Engels applies a "dialectical" approach to the natural world in general, arguing that contemporary science is increasingly recognizing the necessity of viewing natural processes in terms of interconnectedness, development, and transformation. Some scholars have doubted that Engels’ "dialectics of nature" is a legitimate extension of Marx’s approach to social processes. Other scholars have argued that despite Marx’s insistence that humans are natural beings in an evolving, mutual relationship with the rest of nature, Marx’s own writings pay inadequate attention to the ways in which human agency is constrained by such factors as biology, geography, and ecology.
- The law of the unity and conflict of opposites
- The law of the passage of quantitative changes into qualitative changes
- The law of the negation of the negation
The second law Hegel took from Ancient Greek philosophers, notably the paradox of the heap, and explanation by Aristotle, and it is equated with what scientists call phase transitions. It may be traced to the ancient Ionian philosophers, particularly Anaximenes from whom Aristotle, Hegel, and Engels inherited the concept. For all these authors, one of the main illustrations is the phase transitions of water. There has also been an effort to apply this mechanism to social phenomena, whereby population increases result in changes in social structure. The law of the passage of quantitative changes into qualitative changes can also be applied to the process of social change and class conflict.
The third law, "negation of the negation," originated with Hegel. Although Hegel coined the term "negation of the negation," it gained its fame from Marx's using it in Capital. There Marx wrote this: "The [death] knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators [capitalists] are expropriated. The capitalist mode of appropriation, the result of the capitalist mode of production, produces capitalist private property. This is the first negation [antithesis] of individual private property. [The "first negation," or antithesis, negates the thesis, which in this instance is feudalism, the economic system that preceded capitalism.] . . . But capitalist production begets, with the inexorability of a law of Nature, its own negation. It [final communism, the synthesis] is the negation of [the] negation."
In drawing up these laws, Engels presupposes a holistic approach outlined above and in Lenin's three elements of dialectic below, and emphasizes elsewhere that all things are in motion. The discovery that heat was actually the movement of atoms or molecules was the very latest science of the period in which Engels was writing. (Today we would describe heat in terms of "energy," a concept that was just beginning to be grasped.)
After reading Hegel's Science of Logic in 1914, Lenin made some brief notes outlining three "elements" of logic. They are:
- The determination of the concept out of itself [the thing itself must be considered in its relations and in its development];
- The contradictory nature of the thing itself (the other of itself), the contradictory forces and tendencies in each phenomenon;
- The union of analysis and synthesis.
Lenin develops these in a further series of notes, and appears to argue that "the transition of quantity into quality and vice versa" is an example of the unity and opposition of opposites expressed tentatively as "not only the unity of opposites, but the transitions of every determination, quality, feature, side, property into every other [into its opposite?]."
Also, in his essay "On the Question of Dialectics", Lenin stated that " Development is the “ struggle ” of opposites." He stated that " The unity ( coincidence, identity, equal action ) of opposites is conditional, temporary, transitory, relative. The struggle of mutually exclusive opposites is absolute, just as development and motion are absolute. "
In Materialism and Empiriocriticism (1908), Lenin explained dialectical materialism as three axes: (i) the materialist inversion of Hegelian dialectics, (ii) the historicity of ethical principles ordered to class struggle, and (iii) the convergence of "laws of evolution" in physics (Helmholtz), biology (Darwin), and in political economy (Marx). Hence, Lenin was philosophically positioned between historicist Marxism (Labriola) and determinist Marxism—a political position close to "social Darwinism" (Kautsky). Moreover, late century discoveries in physics (x-rays, electrons), and the beginning of quantum mechanics, philosophically challenged previous conceptions of matter and materialism, thus Matter seemed to be disappearing. Lenin disagreed:
'Matter disappears' means that the limit within which we have hitherto known matter disappears, and that our knowledge is penetrating deeper; properties of matter are disappearing that formerly seemed absolute, immutable, and primary, and which are now revealed to be relative and characteristic only of certain states of matter. For the sole 'property' of matter, with whose recognition philosophical materialism is bound up, is the property of being an objective reality, of existing outside of the mind.
Lenin was developing the work of Engels, who said that "with each epoch-making discovery, even in the sphere of natural science, materialism has to change its form." One of Lenin's challenges was distancing materialism, as a viable philosophical outlook, from the "vulgar materialism" expressed in the statement "the brain secretes thought in the same way as the liver secretes bile" (attributed to 18th-century physician Pierre Jean Georges Cabanis, 1757–1808); "metaphysical materialism" (matter composed of immutable particles); and 19th-century "mechanical materialism" (matter as random molecules interacting per the laws of mechanics). The philosophic solution that Lenin (and Engels) proposed was "dialectical materialism", wherein matter is defined as objective reality, theoretically consistent with (new) developments occurred in the sciences.
György Lukács, minister of Culture in the brief Béla Kun government of the Hungarian Soviet Republic (1919), published History and Class Consciousness (1923), which defined dialectical materialism as the knowledge of society as a whole, knowledge which, in itself, was immediately the class consciousness of the proletariat. In the first chapter "What is Orthodox Marxism?", Lukács defined orthodoxy as fidelity to the "Marxist method", not fidelity to "dogmas":
Orthodox Marxism, therefore, does not imply the uncritical acceptance of the results of Marx's investigations. It is not the "belief" in this or that thesis, nor the exegesis of a "sacred" book. On the contrary, orthodoxy refers exclusively to method. It is the scientific conviction that dialectical materialism is the road to truth, and that its methods can be developed, expanded, and deepened, only along the lines laid down by its founders. (§1)
In his later works and actions, Lukács became a leader of Democratic Marxism. In the 1960s his associates, which became known as the Budapest School. He and his associates became sharply critical of the formulation of dialectical materialism in the Soviet Union that was exported to those countries under its control. He modified many of his formulations in his 1923 works and went on to develop a Marxist ontology and played an active role in democratic movements in Hungary in 1956 and the 1960s.
Lukács philosophical criticism of Marxist revisionism proposed an intellectual return to Marxist method. As did Louis Althusser, who later defined Marxism and psychoanalysis as "conflictual sciences"; that political factions and revisionism are inherent to Marxist theory and political praxis, because dialectical materialism is the philosophic product of class struggle:
For this reason, the task of orthodox Marxism, its victory over Revisionism and utopianism can never mean the defeat, once and for all, of false tendencies. It is an ever-renewed struggle against the insidious effects of bourgeois ideology on the thought of the proletariat. Marxist orthodoxy is no guardian of traditions, it is the eternally vigilant prophet proclaiming the relation between the tasks of the immediate present and the totality of the historical process. (§5)
Moreover, "the premise of dialectical materialism is, we recall: 'It is not men's consciousness that determines their existence, but, on the contrary, their social existence that determines their consciousness'. . . . Only when the core of existence stands revealed as a social process can existence be seen as the product, albeit the hitherto unconscious product, of human activity". (§5) Philosophically aligned with Marx is the criticism of the individualist, bourgeois philosophy of the subject, which is founded upon the voluntary and conscious subject. Against said ideology is the primacy of social relations. Existence — and thus the world — is the product of human activity; but this can be seen only by accepting the primacy of social process on individual consciousness. This type of consciousness is an effect of ideological mystification.
Yet, at the 5th Congress of the Communist International (July 1924), Grigory Zinoviev formally denounced Lukács's heterodox definition of orthodox Marxism as exclusively derived from fidelity to the "Marxist method", and not to Communist party dogmas; and denounced the Marxism developments of the German theorist Karl Korsch.
In On Contradiction (1937) Mao outlined a version of dialectical materialism that subsumed two of Engels' three principal laws of dialectics, "the transformation of quantity into quality" and "the negation of the negation" as sub-laws (and not principal laws of their own) of the first law, "the unity and interpenetration of opposites".
Dialectical materialism as a heuristic in biology and elsewhere
The noted historian of science Loren Graham has detailed at length the role played by dialectical materialism in the Soviet Union in disciplines as diverse as biology, psychology, chemistry, cybernetics, quantum mechanics, and cosmology. He has concluded that, despite the Lysenko period in genetics and constraints on free inquiry imposed by political authorities, dialectical materialism had a positive influence on the work of many Soviet scientists.
Some evolutionary biologists, such as Richard Lewontin and the late Stephen Jay Gould, have tried to employ dialectical materialism in their approach. They view dialectics as playing a precautionary heuristic role in their work. From Lewontin's perspective, we get this idea:
Dialectical materialism is not, and never has been, a programmatic method for solving particular physical problems. Rather, a dialectical analysis provides an overview and a set of warning signs against particular forms of dogmatism and narrowness of thought. It tells us, "Remember that history may leave an important trace. Remember that being and becoming are dual aspects of nature. Remember that conditions change and that the conditions necessary to the initiation of some process may be destroyed by the process itself. Remember to pay attention to real objects in time and space and not lose them in utterly idealized abstractions. Remember that qualitative effects of context and interaction may be lost when phenomena are isolated". And above all else, "Remember that all the other caveats are only reminders and warning signs whose application to different circumstances of the real world is contingent."
Gould shared similar views regarding a heuristic role for dialectical materialism. He wrote that "dialectical thinking should be taken more seriously by Western scholars, not discarded because some nations of the second world have constructed a cardboard version as an official political doctrine." Furthermore,
when presented as guidelines for a philosophy of change, not as dogmatic precepts true by fiat, the three classical laws of dialectics embody a holistic vision that views change as interaction among components of complete systems, and sees the components themselves not as a priori entities, but as both products and inputs to the system. Thus, the law of "interpenetrating opposites" records the inextricable interdependence of components: the "transformation of quantity to quality" defends a systems-based view of change that translates incremental inputs into alterations of state; and the "negation of negation" describes the direction given to history because complex systems cannot revert exactly to previous states.
This heuristic was also applied to the theory of punctuated equilibrium proposed by Niles Eldredge and Gould. They wrote that "history, as Hegel said, moves upward in a spiral of negations," and that "punctuated equilibria is a model for discontinuous tempos of change (in) the process of speciation and the deployment of species in geological time." They noted that "the law of transformation of quantity into quality", "holds that a new quality emerges in a leap as the slow accumulation of quantitative changes, long resisted by a stable system, finally forces it rapidly from one state into another," a phenomenon described in some disciplines as a paradigm shift. Apart from the commonly cited example of water turning to steam with increased temperature, Gould and Eldredge noted another analogy in information theory, "with its jargon of equilibrium, steady state, and homeostasis maintained by negative feedback," and "extremely rapid transitions that occur with positive feedback."
Lewontin, Gould and Eldredge were thus more interested in dialectical materialism as a heuristic, than a dogmatic form of 'truth' or a statement of their politics. Nevertheless, they found a readiness for critics to "seize upon" key statements and portray punctuated equilibrium, and exercises associated with it, such as public exhibitions, as a "Marxist plot".
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- "The splitting of a single whole and the cognition of its contradictory parts is the essence (one of the "essentials", one of the principal, if not the principal, characteristics or features) of dialectics. That is precisely how Hegel, too, puts the matter." Lenin's Collected Works VOLUME 38, p359: On the question of dialectics.
- cf, for instance. 'The Doctrine of Flux and the Unity of Opposites' in the 'Heraclitus' entry in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- "The sudden conversion into a change of quality of a change which was apparently merely quantitative had already attracted the attention of the ancients who illustrated in popular examples the contradiction arising from ignorance of this fact; they are familiar under the names of ‘the bald’ and ‘the heap’. These elenchi are, according to Aristotle's explanation, ways in which one is compelled to say the opposite of what one had previously asserted..." https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/hegel/works/hl/hl333.htm#0719. Hegel, Science of Logic, § 718ff, (p 335 in the Miller edition. See also pp. 368-70.)
- c.f. a fascination with transitions between rarefaction and condensation. Guthrie, W.K.C. "The Milesians: Anaximenes." A History of Greek Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1962. 116.
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