Dialectical materialism

Dialectical materialism

May 26th, 2013
posted by

Philosophy is unavoidable. Without it, you can’t interpret the world. Like a computer with no operating system, you can’t process input. If you say you don’t have a philosophy, what you mean is, you don’t think about your philosophy. Or you try to act randomly. But you have to see the world some way.


The philosophy of Marxism is dialectical materialism. The basic principle of dialectical materialism is: everything that physically exists is in a process of uninterrupted change.


As far back as 500 BC the Greek Heraclitus said “you could not step in the same river twice, for new water would be upon you.” But it wasn’t until the 19th century that science showed how general this principle is. Before then, people thought that animal and plant species were eternal; but the theory of evolution proved that they come, go, and change. Before then, people thought that the elements, like carbon, hydrogen, and so on, were separate and static; but scientists proved that the elements can be transformed into each other by the addition or subtraction of subatomic particles.


You don’t need a scientist to tell you, that everything that exists is changing. Everybody uses this understanding in their daily lives. If you have an orange today, you don’t count on having it in a month. Our own bodies change uninterruptedly.


Try to think of something that has a physical existence, but does not change. We all know that musical records become scratched and degraded over time, and likewise compact discs. But what about an mp3 stored electronically? That too exists in the real world. It is a collection of magnetic charges on a hard disk, subject to the effects of time.


Similarly, ideas physically exist in our brains, as neural connections and electro-chemical impulses. This material basis means that our ideas are always also changing, as neurons fail or are re-purposed, brain chemistry changes with age, new experiences cause us to consciously or unconsciously alter old thoughts, and so on. Anybody can recognize this because everybody knows what it is to forget something.


What does the basic principle, that everything that physically exists is in a process of uninterrupted change, tell us? Why is it useful?


The most fundamental law of classical logic is the law of identity, that A = A, an object equals itself. But if the object physically exists, then it is changing, and in fact it does not equal itself. The only way it could exactly equal itself, would be if it were considered in an instant, a zero of time, but all things that exist in the world exist in time.


You see immediately that dialectical logic has a different attitude than classical logic. While classical logic is designed for things without physical existence, metaphysical things that can be taken out of time, dialectical logic is oriented toward the materially existing universe.


Of course, A = A is not without value in the material world. We use it all the time. Without the ability to identify and categorize things, we’d be hopeless. But the question is, what do we mean when we say A = A. For instance, when we buy a pound of sugar, we recognize that the bag we are buying is not exactly one pound. It is not grain for grain identical to every other bag on the shelf. But it is more or less as good as any other pound bag. We think of them the same. A = A, not because they are actually equal, but because they are close enough.


A only equals A within certain limits. In other words, if too much sugar has leaked from the bag, we no longer forgive its variation from other bags. While classical logic operates with fixed abstractions: free market, a pound of sugar, etc., presuming that a free market is equal to a free market, a pound of sugar is equal to a pound of sugar, etc., dialectical materialism analyses all things in their continuous change, while determining in the material conditions the critical limit beyond which A ceases to be A.


Taking as its starting point, the principle that everything that physically exists is in a process of uninterrupted change, dialectical materialism tries to develop ways of understanding this process of change, in general.


The reason dialectical materialism is called dialectical, is because the main pattern in change is called the dialectic. Its three components, called the Hegelian triad, are thesis, anti-thesis, and synthesis. These refer to a thing, an opposing thing, and a resolution. Basically, the dialectic recognizes that, while a metaphysical logical system does not permit contradictions, life is filled with oppositions that can be called “contradictions,” and that a natural course for change is in the resolution of these contradictions. Through interacting with opposites, things are changed, and eventually may not even remain opposites – that is what synthesis describes.


For example, say Jenny’s husband Rick has cheated on her, and she found out and is upset. At this point, from the viewpoint of classical logic, one might simply say, “Jenny has an unhappy marriage. Her husband is a cheater.” But dialectical materialism would see it differently. There is a contradiction between Jenny’s marriage to Rick and her expectation of what marriage means. This contradiction will resolve into a synthesis. Jenny will either divorce Rick, or she will forgive him, or she will learn to live with him without forgiving him. The synthesis will be a new relationship between the two. It is insufficient to simply say that Jenny has an unhappy marriage with Rick, because what Jenny and Rick have is a relationship that, like everything else, changes uninterruptedly.


Another pattern of change is the change of quantity into quality. This describes how quantitative changes sometimes cause qualitative changes. For instance, the temperature of water is a quantitative variable. Between 0 degrees and 100 degrees Celsius water remains water. But at 100 degrees Celsius, a qualitative change takes place – water boils and transforms into steam.


Evolution is another example of the change of quantity into quality. Through time, mutations may accumulate in a genome. At some point, these mutations become sufficient that the creature constitutes a new species. A quantitative variable, mutations, at a certain point causes a qualitative change, of species.


Dialectical materialism is the study of material things in their unceasing change. Its logic is the logic of change. Classical logic is useful for a snapshot, a static state, a zero of time. Dialectical materialism lets us see a motion picture.


Dialectical materialism is a philosophy and a form of logic, but these are only valuable in so far as they are a guide to action in the real world. Our brains subconsciously use dialectical materialism constantly. When we turn on the hot and cold taps in the shower at the same time, we understand that the opposites will synthesize to a desirable temperature. When we add items into a grocery bag, we know that at some point if we add more weight the bag will break. But what about conscious application of dialectical materialism to problems more complex than having a good shower?


The key idea of dialectical materialism is that life is a motion picture, not a photograph.


It is a common error, to look at an instant in time, and to consider that instant the true and eternal state of the universe. For instance, a white slaveholder in the US South in 1820 might have looked around, and decided that slavery would last forever. They would proceed to invent all kinds of rationalizations for why slavery must be – blacks are inferior and must be subjugated because they cannot run their own lives; it is impossible to produce cotton profitably without slave labor; blacks committed Biblical sin and God has decreed their servile status, and so on. These are falsehoods based on the false idea that what is, must be and always will be. Dialectical materialism would instead begin from the premise that the social relation of slavery is based on the material world, that its basis is in a state of uninterrupted change, and that it will change qualitatively at some point. The start would be to look at the social and economic contradictions – between slave and master, slave labor and free labor, the Imperial and colonized countries, the industrial north and the rural south, etc.


Another error is to take two things that, based on superficial characteristics and considered in an instant, appear similar, and say they are the same thing. In nature, numerous animals take advantage of this error, like octopi who make themselves appear as the ocean floor. The fish doesn’t realize the difference, gets too close, and is consumed. Too late it learns that things that look the same need not be the same.


A human example of this mistake: some political commentators in the 1930s thought that the USSR and Nazi Germany were the same thing – bureaucratic collectivism. They compiled lists of similar features, including secret police, state repression, state involvement in the economy, and non-elected leaders. The error is thinking that such a list is an actual argument. One can easily create these lists. For instance, one could say of France and the USSR in the 30s, that both were run by people calling themselves socialists, both were afraid of Hitler, and both had experienced revolutions overthrowing and executing their monarchs. But the question isn’t of lists of supposedly unchanging features, it is how to understand origin, significance, and direction. In other words, to understand what something is one has to understand it through time. Over time, the octopus is easy to distinguish from the ocean floor.


Dialectical questions to ask are: what is the historical origin? What is the material significance? What changes have occurred? What is the direction of the changes? Have the changes passed from the quantitative stage to the qualitative? How might they?


These questions can be asked of anything. In the case of the USSR and Nazi Germany, even the first one would start establishing the major differences between the countries – one born from a workers’ revolution, the other a power grab facilitated by the elite.


Dialectical materialism exposes errors that stem from an idealized and static world-view. It sees that everything is in flux, in process, multi-sided and dynamic. It does not provide a mystic master key to the universe – that is the realm of idealist metaphysics, not things existing in the real world. Rather, it provides a mental arsenal for interpretation and understanding, one that, like everything else, is not fixed, but changing, adapting to new circumstances and incorporating new information.

This entry was posted on Sunday, May 26th, 2013 at 6:51 pm and is filed under Theory. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

One Response to “Dialectical materialism”

  1. Justin Says:

    Just yesterday i contemplated studying philosophy for fun but then thought… Why? It wont help me provide for my family just further fuel my already jaded point of view. I like that you showed the purpose of philosophy and I was thoroughly entertained. Win/Win.

Leave a Reply