Wednesday, March 14, 2007

The Marxist Dialectic


The Marxist Dialectic

As was said at the very beginning of this series the starting point of Marxism was not an abstract philosophy but a determination to change the world and an identification of and with the working class as the agent of that change. Nevertheless from that point of departure Marx developed, very rapidly, a coherent philosophical outlook which both built on all previous philosophy and transcended it. This outlook is usually called dialectical materialism ( though Marx, himself, did not use the term)

It is materialist in that it asserts the objective existence of the material world and the priority of matter over mind, so that, fundamentally, it is the material conditions of life that shape human consciousness and ideas rather than ideas which determine material conditions. But it is not at all a mechanical materialism or fatalistic determinism which treats human history as working like clockwork towards a predetermined outcome. Rather it is dialectical in that it deals always with complex interactions and contradictions.

Dialectics is an old philosophical term dating back to Ancient Greece where it signified the idea that truth can be arrived at through dialogue, the clash of opposing arguments. At the end of the eighteenth century, Hegel, inspired by the French Revolution, used a much advanced dialectical method to attempt an account of the whole history of human consciousness and thought as developing through internal contradictions, but in Hegel the dialectic remained confined to the realm of ideas.

Marx took over and transformed the Hegelian dialectic, giving it a materialist foundation. For Marx the driving force of history, both human and natural, was not conflict between opposed ideas or concepts but conflict between opposed material and social forces.

The philosophical starting point of dialectics is that everything, everything in the universe, is moving and changing. This is now established scientific fact and it has profound political implications – think how often you hear people say ‘You will never change such and such’ or ‘ There will always be…racism, inequality, rulers or whatever’ – but it also has philosophical implications because dialectics is the logic of change.

This matters because the dominant mode of thinking, based on the logic developed by Aristotle, is not founded on the principle of universal change, rather it deals with fixed states or ‘things’. Its basic axioms are that A = A (a thing is equal to itself) and A does not = non-A ( a thing is not equal to something other than itself), from which are derived sequences of sound reasoning known as syllogisms. For example:

All birds have feathers
A swan is a bird
Therefore a swan has feathers

This formal logic was, and is, all well and good and very necessary for practical human affairs but it is limited – it excludes change. Dialectical logic moves beyond formal logic by starting not with ‘things’ but with processes, processes of coming into being and passing out of being. The moment processes of change are fed into the equation it becomes necessary to deal with contradiction. If state A (e.g. day) changes into state B (night) it passes through a phase of A not being A or being both A and B (twilight).

From this insight Marx and Engels developed certain principles of dialectics to reflect (and analyse) processes of change.

First, every existing ‘thing’ or ‘state’ is both a unity and a conflict of opposites, i.e. it is a temporary balance or moment of equilibrium between the forces that brought that state into being and maintain it and the forces that will bring about its dissolution or transformation. Second, every process of change involves an accumulation of gradual or quantitative changes within an existing state, which at a certain point turn into a qualitative change in which the nature of that state is transformed. Third, in every process of change the ‘negative’ or revolutionary force which brings about the change is itself transformed or ‘negated’ so that a new state, a new unity of opposites, emerges ( Engels called this ‘the negation of the negation’).

Obviously all this sounds very abstract but, in fact, it is extremely useful for analyzing and effecting processes of social change and especially revolutionary change. The whole of Marx’s theory of history is an example of applied dialectics. History consists of a series of modes of production (ancient society, feudalism, capitalism etc.) each of which may last for centuries and, on the surface, appear very stable but in reality is a unity of opposites, a balance between the forces and relations of production and antagonistic classes. Gradual quantitative changes in the forces of production bring them into conflict with the relations of production and the balance of the class struggle shifts to the point where it explodes in revolution. The old order is overthrown and a new form of society emerges.

Another important example is Lenin’s response to the First World War. Profoundly shocked at the support for the war by German Social Democracy and other European Socialist parties, Lenin re-read Hegel. His study of the Hegelian dialectic then played a major part in his analysis of imperialism ( Imperialism – the Highest Stage of Capitalism) which showed that capitalism had entered a new phase in which the contradictions of the system were intensified and lead inexorably to war. Lenin’s deep grasp of dialectical contradictions is also evident in his support for national liberation movements against imperialism. He was an internationalist but he understood that the road to workers’ international unity lay through the struggle against national oppression.

But dialectics is not something just for the great theoreticians of the movement. It is immensely useful for every trade union and political activist who has to grapple with the dynamics of a strike or campaign, with its rapid twists and turns and decisive moments when victory or defeat hang in the balance and for every socialist worker who has to deal, on a daily basis with the consciousness of his or her fellow workers, for consciousness also develops dialectically, i.e. through contradictions.

One final point needs to be made, for it is often not understood. Dialectics reflects and expresses the logic of natural and social change but it is not a magic key to history. In itself dialectics cannot prove that any particular change has happened or will happen. Only a dialectical analysis of the real world can do that. And, like Marxism as a whole, dialectics is not a dogma but a guide to action.

John Molyneux
21 December, 2006


Rosa Lichtenstein said...

I have left a reply to this hackneyed argument of John's here:


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tibak said...

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