Dialectical materialism is the fundamental method of Marxism: a philosophy that seeks to analyse and explain the world due to the processes and material conditions in nature; a philosophy that seeks to explain change and motion. John Pickard provides an introduction to this revolutionary philosophy at the heart of Marxism.
When we discuss the method of Marxism, we are dealing with the ideas which provide the basis for our activities in the labour movement, the arguments we raise in the discussions we take part in, and the articles we write.
It is generally accepted that Marxism took its form from three main roots. One of those roots was the development of Marx’s analysis of French politics, particularly the bourgeois revolution in France in the 1790s, and the subsequent class struggles during the early 19th century. Another of the roots of Marxism is what is called ‘English economics’, ie., Marx’s analysis of the capitalist system as it developed in England. The other root of Marxism, which was its starting point historically, is said to be ‘German philosophy’, and it is that aspect of it that I want to deal with here.
To begin with, we say that the basis of Marxism is materialism. That is to say, Marxism starts from the idea that matter is the essence of all reality, and that matter creates mind, and not vice versa.
In other words, thought and all the things that are said to derive from thought – artistic ideas, scientific ideas, ideas of law, politics, morality and so on – these things are in fact derived from the material world. The ‘mind’, ie., thought and thought processes, is a product of the brain; and the brain itself, and therefore ideas, arose at a certain stage in the development of living matter. It is a product of the material world.
Therefore, to understand the real nature of human consciousness and society, as Marx himself put it, it is a question “not of setting out from what men say, imagine, conceive… in order to arrive at men in the flesh; but setting out from real, active men, and on the basis of their real life-process demonstrating the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of this life-process. The phantoms formed in the human brain are also, necessarily, images of their material life-process, which is empirically verifiable and bound to material premises. Morality, religion, metaphysics, all the rest of ideology and their corresponding forms of consciousness, thus no longer retain the semblance of independence. They have no history, no development; but men, developing their material production and their material intercourse, alter, along with their real existence, their thinking and the products of their thinking. Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life. In the first (non-materialist) method of approach the starting point is consciousness taken as the living individual; in the second (materialist) method, which conforms to real living individuals themselves, and consciousness is considered solely as their consciousness.” (The German Ideology, Chapter one).
A materialist therefore seeks an explanation not only for ideas, but for material phenomena themselves, in terms of material causes and not in terms of supernatural intervention by gods and the like. And that is a very important aspect of Marxism, which clearly sets it aside from the methods of thinking and logic which have become established in capitalist society.
The development of scientific thought in the European countries in the 17th and 18th centuries displayed some really contradictory characteristics, which still remain typical of the approach of bourgeois theoreticians today. On the one hand there was a development towards a materialist method. Scientists looked for causes. They didn’t just accept natural phenomena as god-ordained miracles, they sought some explanation for them. But at the same time these scientists did not yet possess a consistent or worked-out materialist understanding; and very often, behind the explanations for natural phenomena, they also saw, at the end of the chain, the hand of God at work.
Such an approach means accepting, or at least leaving open the possibility, that the material world we live in is ultimately shaped by forces from outside it, and that consciousness or ideas come first, in the sense that they can exist independently of the real world. This approach, which is the philosophical opposite of materialism, we call ‘idealism’.
According to this approach, the development of mankind and of society – of art, science, etc. – is dictated not by material processes but by the development of ideas, by the perfection or degeneration of human thought. And it is no accident that this general approach, whether spoken or unspoken, pervades all the philosophies of capitalism.
Bourgeois philosophers and historians in general take the present system for granted. They accept that capitalism is some kind of finished, complete system which is incapable of being replaced by a new and higher system. And they try to present all past history as the efforts of lesser mortals to achieve the kind of ‘perfect society’ which they believe capitalism has achieved or can achieve.
So, when we look at the work of some of the greatest bourgeois scientists and thinkers in the past or even today, we can see how they have tended to jumble up materialist ideas and idealist ideas in their minds. For example Isaac Newton, who examined the laws of mechanics and the laws of motion of planets and planetary bodies, didn’t believe that these processes were dictated by mind or thought. But what he did believe was that an original impetus was given to all matter, and that this initial push was provided by some sort of supernatural force, by God.
In the same way it is possible today for many biologists to accept the idea that species of plants and animals evolved from one type to another, and that mankind itself is a development from earlier species. And yet many of them cling to the notion that there is a qualitative difference between the human mind and the animal mind, consisting of the ‘eternal soul’ which leaves the human body after death. Even some of the most eminent scientists jumble up the materialist method with idealist ideas of this kind, which are really backward, scientifically speaking, and are more related to magic and superstition than to science.
Marxism therefore represents a systematic and fundamental break with idealism in all its forms, and the development in it place of a materialist understanding of what is taking place in reality. Materialism in this sense provides one of the basic starting points of Marxism. The other basic starting point is dialectics.
Dialectics is quite simply the logic of motion, or the logic of common sense to activists in the movement. We all know that things don’t stand still, they change. But there is another form of logic which stands in contradiction to dialectics, which we call ‘formal logic’, which again is deeply embodied in capitalist society. It is perhaps necessary to begin by describing briefly what this method implies.
Formal logic is based on what is known as the ‘law of identity’, which says that ‘A’ equals ‘A’ – i.e. that things are what they are, and that they stand in definite relationships to each other. There are other derivative laws based on the law of identity; for example, if ‘A’ equals ‘A’, it follows that ‘A’ cannot equal ‘B’, nor ‘C’.
On the face of it this method of thinking may again seem like common sense; and in fact it has been a very important tool, a very important device in the development of science and in the industrial revolution which created the present-day society. The development of mathematics and basic arithmetic, for example, was based on formal logic. You couldn’t teach a child a table of multiplication or addition without using formal logic. One plus one equals two, and not three. And in the same way, the method of formal logic was also the basis for the development of mechanics, of chemistry, of biology, etc.
For example, in the 18th century the Scandinavian biologist Linnaeus developed a system of classification for all known plants and animals. Linnaeus divided all living things into classes, into orders, into families, in the order of primates, in the family of hominids, in the genus of homo, and represents the species homo sapiens.
The system of classification represented an enormous step forward in biology. It made possible, for the first time, a real systematic study of plants ad animals, to compare and contrast animal and plant species. But it was based on formal logic. It was based on saying that homo sapiens equals homo sapiens; that musca domestica (the common housefly) equals musca domestica; that an earthworm equals earthworm, and so on. It was, in other words, a fixed and rigid system. It wasn’t possible, according to this system, for a species to equal to anything else, otherwise the system of classification would have completely collapsed.
The same applies in the field of chemistry, where Dalton’s atomic theory meant a huge stride forward. Dalton’s theory was based on the idea that matter is made up of atoms, and that each type of atom is completely separate and peculiar to itself – that its shape and weight is peculiar to that particular element and to none other.
After Dalton there was a more or less rigid classification of elements, again based on a rigid formal logic, whereby it was said that an atom of hydrogen was an atom of hydrogen, an atom of carbon was an atom of carbon, etc. And if any atom could have been something else, this whole system of classification, which has formed the basis of modern chemistry, would have collapsed.
Now it is important to see that there are limitations to the method of formal logic. It is a useful everyday method, and it gives us useful approximations for identifying things. For example, the Linnaean system of classification is still useful to biologists; but since the work of Charles Darwin in particular we can also see the weaknesses in that system.
Darwin pointed out, for instance, that in the Linnaean system some types of plants are given separate names, as separate species, but actually they are very similar to each other. And yet there are other plants with the same name, of the same species, which are said to be different varieties of the same plant, and yet they are very different from each other.
So even by the time of Charles Darwin it was possible to look at the Linnaean system of classification and say, ‘well, there’s something wrong somewhere’. And of course Darwin’s own work provided a systematic basis for the theory of evolution, which for the first time said it is possible for one species to be transformed into another species.
And that left a big hole in the Linnaean system. Before Darwin it was thought that the number of species on the planet was exactly the same as the number of species created by God in the first six days of his labour – except, of course, for those destroyed by the Flood – and that those species had survived unchanged over the millennia. But Darwin produced the idea of species changing, and so inevitably the method of classification also had to be changed.
What applies in the field of biology applies also in the field of chemistry. Chemists became aware, by the late 19th century, that it was possible for one atomic element to become transformed into another. In other words, atoms aren’t completely separated and peculiar to themselves. We know now that many atoms, many chemical elements, are unstable. For example, uranium and other radioactive atoms will split in the course of time and produce completely different atoms with completely different chemical properties and different atomic weights.
So we can see that the method of formal logic was beginning to break down with the development of science itself. But it is the method of dialectics which draws the conclusions of these factual discoveries, and points out there are no absolute or fixed categories, either in nature or in society.
Whereas the formal logician will say that ‘A’ equals ‘A’, the dialectician will say that ‘A’ does not necessarily equal ‘A’. Or to take a practical example that Trotsky uses in his writings, one pound of sugar will not be precisely equal to another pound of sugar. It is a good enough approximation if you want to buy sugar in a shop, but if you look at it more carefully you will see that it’s actually wrong.
So we need to have a form of understanding, a form of logic, that takes into account the fact that things, and life, and society, are in a state of constant motion and change. And that form of logic, of course, is dialectics.
But on the other hand it would be wrong to think that dialectics ascribes to the universe a process of even and gradual change. The laws of dialectics – and here is a word of warning: these concepts sound more intimidating than they really are – the laws of dialectics describe the manner in which the processes of change in reality take place.
QUANTITY INTO QUALITY
Let us take, to begin with, the law of the transformation of quantity into quality’. This law states that the processes of change – motion in the universe – are not gradual, they are not even. Periods of relatively gradual or slight change are interspersed with periods of enormously rapid change – change which cannot be measured in terms of quantity but only in terms of quality.
To use an example from natural science again, let us imagine the heating of water. You can actually measure (“quantify”), in terms of degrees of temperature, the change that takes place in the water as you add heat to it. From, let us say, 10 degrees centigrade (which is normal tap water) to about 98 degrees centigrade, the change will remain quantitative; i.e., the water will remain water, although it is getting warmer.
But then comes a point where the change in the water becomes qualitative, and the water turns into steam. You can no longer describe the change in the water as it is heated from 98 degrees to 102 degrees in purely quantitative terms. We have to say that a qualitative change (water into steam) has come about as a result of an accumulation of quantitative change (adding more and more heat).
And that is what Marx and Engels meant when they referred to the transformation of quantity into quality. The same can be seen in the development of species. There is always a great variety in every species. If we look around this room we can see the degree of variety in homo sapiens. That variety can be measured quantitatively, for example, in terms of height, weight, skin colour, length of nose, etc.
But if evolutionary changes progress to a certain point under the impact of environmental changes, then those quantitative changes can add up to a qualitative change. In other words, you would no longer characterise that change in animal or plant species merely in terms of quantitative details. The species will have become qualitatively different.
For example, we as a species are qualitatively different from chimpanzees or gorillas, and they in turn are qualitatively different from other species of mammals. And those qualitative differences, those evolutionary leaps, have come about as a result of quantitative changes in the past.
The idea of Marxism is that there will always be periods of gradual change interspersed with periods of sudden change. In pregnancy, there is a period of gradual development, and then a period of very sudden development at the end. The same applies to social development. Very often Marxists have used the analogy of pregnancy to describe the development of wars and revolutions. These represent qualitative leaps in social development; but they come about as a result of the accumulation of quantitative contradictions in society.
NEGATION OF THE NEGATION
A second law of dialectics is ‘the law of the negation of the negation’, and again it sounds more complicated than it really is. ‘Negation’ in this sense simply means the passing away of one thing, the death of one thing as it becomes transformed into another.
For example, the development of class society in the early history of humanity represented the negation of the previous classless society. And in future, with the development of communism, we will see another classless society, that would mean the negation of all present class society.
So the law of the negation of the negation simply states that as one system comes into existence, it forces another system to pass away. But that doesn’t mean that the second system is permanent or unchangeable. That second system itself becomes negated as a result of the further developments and processes of change in society. As class society has been the negation of classless society, so communist society will be the negation of class society – the negation of the negation.
Another concept of dialectics is the law of the ‘interpenetration of opposite’. This law quite simply states that processes of change take place because of contradictions – because of the conflicts between the different elements that are embodied in all natural and social processes.
Probably the best example of the interpenetration of opposites in natural science is the ‘quantum theory’. This theory is based on the concept of energy having a dual character – that for some purposes, according to some experiments, energy exists in the form of waves, like electromagnetic energy. But for other purposes energy manifests itself as particles. In other words, it is quite accepted among scientists that matter and energy can actually exist in two different forms at one and the same time – on the one hand as a kind of intangible wave, on the other hand as a particle with a definite ‘quantum’ (amount) of energy embodied in it.
Therefore the basis of the quantum theory in modern physics is contradiction. But there are many other contradictions known to science. Electromagnetic energy, for example, is set in motion through the effect of positive and negative forces on each other. Magnetism depends on the existence of a north pole and a south pole. These things cannot exist separately. They exist and operate precisely because of the contradictory forces being embodied in one and the same system.
Similarly, every society today consists of different contradictory elements joined together in one system, which makes it impossible for any society, any country, to remain stable or unchanged. The dialectical method, in contrast to the method of formal logic, trains us to identify these contradictions, and thereby get to the bottom of the changes taking place.
Marxists are not embarrassed to say that there are contradictory elements within every social process. On the contrary, it is precisely by recognising and understanding the opposite interests embodied within the same process that we are able to work out the likely direction of change, and consequently to identify the aims and objectives which it is necessary and possible in that situation to strive for from the working class point of view.
At the same time, Marxism doesn’t abandon formal logic altogether. But it is important to see, from the point of view of understanding social developments, that formal logic must take second position.
We all use formal logic for everyday purposes. It gives us the necessary approximations for communication and conducting our daily activities. We wouldn’t be able to lead normal lives without paying lip service to formal logic, without using the approximation that one equals one.
But, on the other hand, we have to see the limitations of formal logic – the limitations that become evident in science when we study processes in more depth and detail, and also when we examine social and political processes more closely.
Dialectics is very rarely accepted by scientists. Some scientists are dialecticians, but the majority even today muddle up a materialist approach with all sorts of formal and idealistic ideas.
And if that’s the case in natural science, it is much, much more the case as far as the social sciences are concerned. The reasons for this are fairly obvious. If you try to examine society and social processes from a scientific point of view, then you cannot avoid coming up against the contradictions of the capitalist system and the need for the socialist transformation of society.
But the universities, which are supposed to be centres of learning and study, are under capitalism far from being independent of the ruling class and the state. That is why natural science can still have a scientific method which leans towards dialectical materialism; but when it comes to the social sciences you will find in the colleges and universities some of the worst kinds of formalism and idealism possible.
That is not unrelated to the vested interests of the professors and academics who are highly paid. It is obvious and unavoidable that their privileged position in society will have some reflection, some effect on what they’re supposed to teach. Their own views and prejudices will be contained in the ‘knowledge’ which they pass on to their students, and so on down to the level of the schools.
Bourgeois historians, in particular, are among the most shortsighted of all social scientists. How many times have we seen examples of bourgeois historians who imagine that history ended yesterday! Here in Britain they all seem to admit the horrors of British imperialism as far as the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries are concerned; that British imperialism engaged in slave traffic; that it was responsible for some of the most bloody subjugation of colonial peoples; that it was also responsible for some of the worst exploitation of British workers, including women and children, in the coal mines, the cotton mills, and so on.
They will accept all these iniquities – up until yesterday. But when it comes to today, of course, then British imperialism suddenly becomes democratic and progressive.
And that is completely one-sided, a completely lopsided view of history, which is diametrically opposed to the method of Marxism. The attitude of Marx and Engels was to view social processes from the same dialectical standpoint from which they viewed nature – from the standpoint of the processes that are actually taking place.
In our everyday discussions and debates in the labour movement, we will often come across people who are formalists. Even many on the left will look at things in a completely rigid and formal way, without understanding the direction in which things are moving.
The right wing in the labour movement, and also some on the left, believe that Marxist theory is a dogma, that ‘theory’ is like a 600 lb weight on the back of an activist, and the quicker you get rid of that weight, the more active and effective you can be.
But that is a complete misconception of the whole nature of Marxist theory. In point of fact Marxism is the opposite of a dogma. It is precisely a method for coming to grips with the processes of change that are taking place around us.
Nothing is fixed and nothing remains unchanged. It is the formalists who see society as a still photograph, who can get overawed by the situations they are faced with because they don’t see how and why things will change. It is this kind of approach that can easily lead to a dogmatic acceptance of things as they are or as they have been, without understanding the inevitability of change.
Marxist theory is therefore an absolutely essential device for any activity within the labour movement. We need to be consciously attuned to the contradictory forces at work in the class struggle, in order to orient ourselves to the way in which events are developing.
Of course it isn’t always easy to free ourselves from the prevailing framework of thinking in capitalist society and absorb the Marxist method. As Karl Marx said, there is no royal road to science. You have to treat the hard path sometimes in grappling with new political ideas.
But the discussion and study of Marxist theory is an absolutely essential part of the development of every activist. It is that theory alone that will provide comrades with a compass and a map amidst all the complexities of the struggle. It is all very well to be an activist. But without a conscious understanding of the processes you are involved in, you are no more effective than an explorer without a compass and a map.
And if you try to explore without scientific aids, you can be as energetic as you like but sooner or later you will fall into a ravine or a bog and disappear, as so many activists over the years have unfortunately done.
The idea of having a compass and a map is that you can take your bearings. You can judge where you are at any particular time, where you are going and where you will be. And that is the fundamental reason why we need to get to grips with Marxist theory. It provides us with an absolutely invaluable guide to action as far as our activities in the labour movement are concerned.