Dialectical materialism is the world outlook of the Marxist-Leninist party. It is called dialectical materialism because its approach to the phenomena of nature, its method of studying and apprehending them, is dialectical, while its interpretation of the phenomena of nature, its conception of these phenomena, its theory, is materialistic.
Historical materialism is the extension of the principles of dialectical materialism to the study of social life, an application of the principles of dialectical materialism to the phenomena of the life of society, to the study of society and of its history.
SECTION 1: DIALECTICS
When describing their dialectical method, Marx and Engels usually refer to Hegel as the philosopher who formulated the main features of dialectics. This, however, does not mean that the dialectics of Marx and Engels is identical with the dialectics of Hegel. As a matter of fact, Marx and Engels took from the Hegelian dialectics only its “rational kernel,” casting aside its Hegelian idealistic shell, and developed dialectics further so as to lend it a modern scientific form.
“My dialectic method,” says Marx, “is not only different from the Hegelian, but is its direct opposite. To Hegel, … the process of thinking which, under the name of ‘the Idea,’ he even transforms into an independent subject, is the demiurgos (creator) of the real world, and the real world is only the external, phenomenal form of ‘the Idea.’ With me, on the contrary, the ideal is nothing else than the material world reflected by the human mind and translated into forms of thought.” (Marx, Afterword to the Second German Edition of Volume I of Capital.)
When describing their materialism, Marx and Engels usually refer to Feuerbach as the philosopher who restored materialism to its rights. This, however, does not mean that the materialism of Marx and Engels is identical with Feuerbach’s materialism. As a matter of fact, Marx and Engels took from Feuerbach’s materialism its “inner kernel,” developed it into a scientific-philosophical theory of materialism and cast aside its idealistic and religious-ethical encumbrances. We know that Feuerbach, although he was fundamentally a materialist, objected to the name materialism. Engels more than once declared that “in spite of” the materialist “foundation,” Feuerbach “remained… bound by the traditional idealist fetters,” and that “the real idealism of Feuerbach becomes evident as soon as we come to his philosophy of religion and ethics.” (Marx and Engels, Vol. XIV, pp. 652-54.)
Dialectics comes from the Greek dialego, to discourse, to debate. In ancient times dialectics was the art of arriving at the truth by disclosing the contradictions in the argument of an opponent and overcoming these contradictions. There were philosophers in ancient times who believed that the disclosure of contradictions in thought and the clash of opposite opinions was the best method of arriving at the truth. This dialectical method of thought, later extended to the phenomena of nature, developed into the dialectical method of apprehending nature, which regards the phenomena of nature as being in constant movement and undergoing constant change, and the development of nature as the result of the development of the contradictions in nature, as the result of the interaction of opposed forces in nature.
In its essence, dialectics is the direct opposite of metaphysics.
1) Marxist Dialectical Method
The principal features of the Marxist dialectical method are as follows:
a) Nature Connected and Determined
Contrary to metaphysics, dialectics does not regard nature as an accidental agglomeration of things, of phenomena, unconnected with, isolated from, and independent of, each other, but as a connected and integral whole, in which things, phenomena are organically connected with, dependent on, and determined by, each other.
The dialectical method therefore holds that no phenomenon in nature can be understood if taken by itself, isolated from surrounding phenomena, inasmuch as any phenomenon in any realm of nature may become meaningless to us if it is not considered in connection with the surrounding conditions, but divorced from them; and that, vice versa, any phenomenon can be understood and explained if considered in its inseparable connection with surrounding phenomena, as one conditioned by surrounding phenomena.
b) Nature is a State of Continuous Motion and Change
Contrary to metaphysics, dialectics holds that nature is not a state of rest and immobility, stagnation and immutability, but a state of continuous movement and change, of continuous renewal and development, where something is always arising and developing, and something always disintegrating and dying away.
The dialectical method therefore requires that phenomena should be considered not only from the standpoint of their interconnection and interdependence, but also from the standpoint of their movement, their change, their development, their coming into being and going out of being.
The dialectical method regards as important primarily not that which at the given moment seems to be durable and yet is already beginning to die away, but that which is arising and developing, even though at the given moment it may appear to be not durable, for the dialectical method considers invincible only that which is arising and developing.
“All nature,” says Engels, “from the smallest thing to the biggest. from grains of sand to suns, from protista (the primary living cells – J. St.) to man, has its existence in eternal coming into being and going out of being, in a ceaseless flux, in unresting motion and change (Ibid., p. 484.)
Therefore, dialectics, Engels says, “takes things and their perceptual images essentially in their interconnection, in their concatenation, in their movement, in their rise and disappearance.” (Marx and Engels, Vol. XIV,’ p. 23.)
c) Natural Quantitative Change Leads to Qualitative Change
Contrary to metaphysics, dialectics does not regard the process of development as a simple process of growth, where quantitative changes do not lead to qualitative changes, but as a development which passes from insignificant and imperceptible quantitative changes to open’ fundamental changes’ to qualitative changes; a development in which the qualitative changes occur not gradually, but rapidly and abruptly, taking the form of a leap from one state to another; they occur not accidentally but as the natural result of an accumulation of imperceptible and gradual quantitative changes.
The dialectical method therefore holds that the process of development should be understood not as movement in a circle, not as a simple repetition of what has already occurred, but as an onward and upward movement, as a transition from an old qualitative state to a new qualitative state, as a development from the simple to the complex, from the lower to the higher:
“Nature,” says Engels, “is the test of dialectics. and it must be said for modern natural science that it has furnished extremely rich and daily increasing materials for this test, and has thus proved that in the last analysis nature’s process is dialectical and not metaphysical, that it does not move in an eternally uniform and constantly repeated circle. but passes through a real history. Here prime mention should be made of Darwin, who dealt a severe blow to the metaphysical conception of nature by proving that the organic world of today, plants and animals, and consequently man too, is all a product of a process of development that has been in progress for millions of years.” (Ibid., p. 23.)
Describing dialectical development as a transition from quantitative changes to qualitative changes, Engels says:
“In physics … every change is a passing of quantity into quality, as a result of a quantitative change of some form of movement either inherent in a body or imparted to it. For example, the temperature of water has at first no effect on its liquid state; but as the temperature of liquid water rises or falls, a moment arrives when this state of cohesion changes and the water is converted in one case into steam and in the other into ice…. A definite minimum current is required to make a platinum wire glow; every metal has its melting temperature; every liquid has a definite freezing point and boiling point at a given pressure, as far as we are able with the means at our disposal to attain the required temperatures; finally, every gas has its critical point at which, by proper pressure and cooling, it can be converted into a liquid state…. What are known as the constants of physics (the point at which one state passes into another – J. St.) are in most cases nothing but designations for the nodal points at which a quantitative (change) increase or decrease of movement causes a qualitative change in the state of the given body, and at which, consequently, quantity is transformed into quality.” (Ibid., pp. 527-28.)
Passing to chemistry, Engels continues:
“Chemistry may be called the science of the qualitative changes which take place in bodies as the effect of changes of quantitative composition. his was already known to Hegel…. Take oxygen: if the molecule contains three atoms instead of the customary two, we get ozone, a body definitely distinct in odor and reaction from ordinary oxygen. And what shall we say of the different proportions in which oxygen combines with nitrogen or sulphur, and each of which produces a body qualitatively different from all other bodies !” (Ibid., p. 528.)
Finally, criticizing Dühring, who scolded Hegel for all he was worth, but surreptitiously borrowed from him the well-known thesis that the transition from the insentient world to the sentient world, from the kingdom of inorganic matter to the kingdom of organic life, is a leap to a new state, Engels says:
“This is precisely the Hegelian nodal line of measure relations in which at certain definite nodal points, the purely quantitative increase or decrease gives rise to a qualitative leap, for example, in the case of water which is heated or cooled, where boiling point and freezing point are the nodes at which – under normal pressure – the leap to a new aggregate state takes place, and where consequently quantity is transformed into quality.” (Ibid., pp. 45-46.)
d) Contradictions Inherent in Nature
Contrary to metaphysics, dialectics holds that internal contradictions are inherent in all things and phenomena of nature, for they all have their negative and positive sides, a past and a future, something dying away and something developing; and that the struggle between these opposites, the struggle between the old and the new, between that which is dying away and that which is being born, between that which is disappearing and that which is developing, constitutes the internal content of the process of development, the internal content of the transformation of quantitative changes into qualitative changes.
The dialectical method therefore holds that the process of development from the lower to the higher takes place not as a harmonious unfolding of phenomena, but as a disclosure of the contradictions inherent in things and phenomena, as a “struggle” of opposite tendencies which operate on the basis of these contradictions.
“In its proper meaning,” Lenin says, “dialectics is the study of the contradiction within the very essence of things.” (Lenin, Philosophical Notebooks, p. 265.)
“Development is the ‘struggle’ of opposites.” (Lenin, Vol. XIII, p. 301.)
Such, in brief, are the principal features of the Marxist dialectical method.
It is easy to understand how immensely important is the extension of the principles of the dialectical method to the study of social life and the history of society, and how immensely important is the application of these principles to the history of society and to the practical activities of the party of the proletariat.
If there are no isolated phenomena in the world, if all phenomena are interconnected and interdependent, then it is clear that every social system and every social movement in history must be evaluated not from the standpoint of “eternal justice” or some other preconceived idea, as is not infrequently done by historians, but from the standpoint of the conditions which gave rise to that system or that social movement and with which they are connected.
The slave system would be senseless, stupid and unnatural under modern conditions. But under the conditions of a disintegrating primitive communal system, the slave system is a quite understandable and natural phenomenon, since it represents an advance on the primitive communal system
The demand for a bourgeois-democratic republic when tsardom and bourgeois society existed, as, let us say, in Russia in 1905, was a quite understandable, proper and revolutionary demand; for at that time a bourgeois republic would have meant a step forward. But now, under the conditions of the U.S.S.R., the demand for a bourgeois-democratic republic would be a senseless and counterrevolutionary demand; for a bourgeois republic would be a retrograde step compared with the Soviet republic.
Everything depends on the conditions, time and place.
It is clear that without such a historical approach to social phenomena, the existence and development of the science of history is impossible; for only such an approach saves the science of history from becoming a jumble of accidents and an agglomeration of most absurd mistakes.
Further, if the world is in a state of constant movement and development, if the dying away of the old and the upgrowth of the new is a law of development, then it is clear that there can be no “immutable” social systems, no “eternal principles” of private property and exploitation, no “eternal ideas” of the subjugation of the peasant to the landlord, of the worker to the capitalist.
Hence, the capitalist system can be replaced by the socialist system, just as at one time the feudal system was replaced by the capitalist system.
Hence, we must not base our orientation on the strata of society which are no longer developing, even though they at present constitute the predominant force, but on those strata which are developing and have a future before them, even though they at present do not constitute the predominant force.
In the eighties of the past century, in the period of the struggle between the Marxists and the Narodniks, the proletariat in Russia constituted an insignificant minority of the population, whereas the individual peasants constituted the vast majority of the population. But the proletariat was developing as a class, whereas the peasantry as a class was disintegrating. And just because the proletariat was developing as a class the Marxists based their orientation on the proletariat. And they were not mistaken; for, as we know, the proletariat subsequently grew from an insignificant force into a first-rate historical and political force.
Hence, in order not to err in policy, one must look forward, not backward.
Further, if the passing of slow quantitative changes into rapid and abrupt qualitative changes is a law of development, then it is clear that revolutions made by oppressed classes are a quite natural and inevitable phenomenon.
Hence, the transition from capitalism to socialism and the liberation of the working class from the yoke of capitalism cannot be effected by slow changes, by reforms, but only by a qualitative change of the capitalist system, by revolution.
Hence, in order not to err in policy, one must be a revolutionary, not a reformist.
Further, if development proceeds by way of the disclosure of internal contradictions, by way of collisions between opposite forces on the basis of these contradictions and so as to overcome these contradictions, then it is clear that the class struggle of the proletariat is a quite natural and inevitable phenomenon.
Hence, we must not cover up the contradictions of the capitalist system, but disclose and unravel them; we must not try to check the class struggle but carry it to its conclusion.
Hence, in order not to err in policy, one must pursue an uncompromising proletarian class policy, not a reformist policy of harmony of the interests of the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, not a compromisers’ policy of the “growing” of capitalism into socialism.
Such is the Marxist dialectical method when applied to social life, to the history of society.
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Questions for Study and Discussion on the Marxist Dialectical Method
Q 1 Where, according to Marx, do ideas originate?
Q 2 “There were philosophers in ancient times who believed that the disclosure of contradictions in thought and the clash of opposite opinions was the best method of arriving at the truth.” Give an example of this process taken from your own everyday experience.
Q 3 “This dialectical method of thought, … regards the phenomena of nature as. being in constant movement and undergoing constant change, and the development of nature as the result of the development of the contradictions in nature, as the result of the interaction of opposed forces in nature.” Try to think of some examples of such dialectical changes in nature.
Q 4 In what way must any particular phenomenon be approached if it is to be understood? Examples?
Q 5 “… dialectics holds that nature is [in] … a state of continuous movement and change, of continuous renewal and development, where something is always arising and developing, and some thing always disintegrating and dying away.” Give an example. Are there any exceptions to this generalisation about nature?
Q 6 Which aspect of a phenomenon is it most important to focus upon? Can you give a concrete example?
Q 7 Give examples of quantitative and qualitative changes in: (a) nature, (b) human society.
Q 8 “The process of development should be understood … as a development from the simple to the complex, from the lower to the higher”. Give some examples of your own from nature and from human society.
Q 9 “… dialectics holds that internal contradictions are inherent in all things and phenomena of nature, for they all have their negative and positive sides, …” Try to think of examples of dialectical contradictions, specifying their two aspects, taken from: (a) mathematics, (b) language (words), (c) nature, (d) human society.
Q 10 Explain why social systems and social movements cannot be evaluated from the standpoint of some set of fixed moral and political standards.
Q 11 Towards which section of any society should revolutionaries be orientated towards? Which particular section of contemporary British society might this be?
Q 12 Which particular dialectical contradiction can be resolved by the process of socialist revolution?
Q 13 What are some of the main contradictions of the capitalist system?
Link to Answers to Section 1: Dialectics Don’t be tempted to look until you have tried to produce your own answers to the questions.