Dialectical Materialism

When I was learning the basics of Marxism, maybe the hardest concept to understand was dialectical materialism. I read several articles and watched many videos but there seems to be a pretty big lack in coherent, complete explanations of dialectical materialism: providing such an explanation will be the purpose of this essay: so, what is dialectical materialism?

The Definition and Essence of Dialectical Materialism

Dialectical Materialism is the basis of Marxist philosophy. Dialectical Materialism is the philosophical and observational lens through which the Marxist views and interprets the world. dialectical materialism is, furthermore, an expansion in the way that things are understood- so, in what way does dialectical materialism understand things? Well, first of all, we have to deal with the “materialism” part. Dialectics were originally formulated by Hegel as a way of understanding things within the context of idealist philosophy. So? What’s idealism? What’s materialism? Well, the debate between idealism and materialism can be pretty much summed up as “mind over matter or matter over mind”. Idealism essentially asserts that reality and the external processes of the world stem from our ideas and our consciousness- materialism, on the other hand, asserts that our consciousness and ideas are simply the result of the external processes of reality. Our brains are made of matter, our brains were formed as the result of a series of coincidental reactions of matter. We developed consciousness as the result of the natural and coincidental processes of natural selection and so on. Materialism, I assert, takes the rationalistic scientific perspective- the perspective which I posit is the most rational given what we currently know about consciousness, physics, etc. so, what are dialectics? Well, dialectics are a concept formulated by idealist philosopher Hegel which helped him understand how things happened and developed and so on within the context of idealist philosophy. Dialectical materialism then, is the application of these dialectics to the context of the materialist worldview.  So, what are dialectics in the context of the materialist worldview? How do they make sense of the world? Well, you can think of dialectics as an expansion of formal logic. While formal logic as formed by philosophers like Aristotle who formulated laws of logic such as A=A and A cannot be A and not A, viewed things as isolated objects with fixed features, dialectical materialism views things as constantly changing and interconnected. What does this mean, however? Well, first to deal with interconnectedness: you may have heard the phrase “I think therefore I am.” This phrase was originally said by Descartes. This, however is completely wrong. This phrase considers the individual as contextualizeable in a vacuum- in other words, it assumes that you can make sense of a person by themself- and therefore regards societies as collections of atomized individuals. However, dialectics asserts that you cannot make sense of the individual by itself- the individual can only be contextualized in a totality. Consider, for example, how Darwin defined the fish: he rejected definitions of fish based on a collection of physical characteristics because not all fish could satisfy all of these characteristics and many of these characteristics are applicable to other animals. Rather, it’s the genesis of all the animals as part of a whole interconnected process which explains the true nature of a fish. Similarly, the human cannot be made sense of in a vacuum by themself- the true essence of a man can only be explained by how he fits into the whole interconnected process of the totality of nature/society etc. To reiterate, central to dialectics is the notion of totality which asserts that everything in nature is interconnected- An animal eats plants, I eat the animal, when I die I’m absorbed into plants and eaten by an animal which is eaten by a person and so on- everything is part of an interconnected process, and furthermore it is this process, this totality, which defines us and explains our essence. Then, the next fundamental dialectical observation is constant motion. This is fairly axiomatically true: constantly, even as you read this, cells in your body are dying and new ones are formed- people die every minute and new ones are born every minute- everything is constantly in motion, constantly developing. As Engels puts it, “All nature from the smallest thing to the biggest, from grains of sand to sun, from protista to man, has its existence in eternal. Coming into being and going out of being, in a ceaseless flux, in un-resting motion and change.” So, the basis of dialectical thought is that we are all part of an interconnected process, a totality, as well as constantly in motion, continually developing at all times. So, then, now that we have the basis of the philosophy established, we can go into the laws of dialectical materialism. These laws, in more depth, observe and explain how this development takes place. The three laws of dialectical materialism as stated by Engels, are 1. The unity of opposites, 2. The transfer of quantitative change into qualitative change, and 3. The negation of the negation. Now, I will explain these three laws in this order.

Law 1: The Unity Of Opposites

The first law of dialectical materialism I will be discussing is called the unity of opposites. The unity of opposites asserts that within everything is inherent contradictions. Within everything are mutually exclusive opposites which come together to form a unity of opposites. For example, all protons carry a positive electrical charge and should therefore repel each other- however, they are bound together by the nuclear force. This is an example of a unity of two contradictory, opposing forces: a unity of opposites. Even down to the structure of atoms, contradictions are endless. The nucleus is the unity of opposites of the neutron and proton. The proton is the unity of the opposites of protons and anti protons. The neutron is the unity of the opposites of neutrons and anti neutrons. Furthermore, It are these contradictions which cause development and change- if there were no contradictions everything would be stagnant and at equilibrium. In other words, these inherent contradictions which exist within everything are the source movement and change. For an example of this on a societal level: in bourgeois society, the interests of the capitalist class and the interests of the proletariat are at odds with one another- they are in contradiction. Bourgeois society is therefore in this way, the unity of the opposites of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. However, it is this contradiction, the contradiction of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat as constantly at odds with one another (among other contradictions), which will inevitably cause the downfall of the capitalist system.

Law 2: The Transfer of Quantitative Change Into Qualitative Change (and vice versa)

The second law is known as the transfer of quantitative change into qualitative change. While the law of the unity of opposites reveals the source of development, the law of the transfer of quantitative change into qualitative (and vice versa) change reveals the mechanism of development. The transfer of quantitative change into qualitative change asserts very simply that, as Engels puts it, “all qualitative differences in nature rest on differences in chemical composition or on different quantities or forms of motion/energy.” Essentially, this law states that to qualitatively change something/change the form in which it takes, requires the addition or subtraction of matter or energy in some form. This claim very much holds up empirically: as Engels again states, “Chemistry can be termed the science of the qualitative changes of bodies as a result of changed quantitative composition.” This is of course true: as the quantitative composition/ the numbers of protons/electrons etc change, so too does the element/the qualitative form of the composition. For another example, as the number of degrees is increased/decreased, the state of matter (the qualitative form of the matter), changes in accordance with this quantitative change in degrees (for example if the number of degrees goes too low, the qualitative form which the matter takes changes by freezing). For an example not based in science/chemistry, think about the fact that if a group of people get together to work on a project, they are able to produce more than sum of what those workers would be able to produce individually- in this example, while the number of workers change quantitatively, so too does the qualitative form of the work. Another important part of this law is the rate at which this change takes place. Rather than being a law which describes gradual change, this law describes change which is sudden, like a qualitative leap, as it is the result of accumulated quantitative changes. This has also been validated by modern science. While evolution, the development of humans, was once considered a slow, gradual development, this view has been discarded in light of new scientific evidence, in favor of what’s known as punctuated equilibrium theory, a theory which observes long periods of stagnation accompanied by sudden leaps in development. So, from here we’ve established that the source of change/the thing that drives and causes change, are the unity of opposites/the inherent contradictions which exist within everything. Furthermore, the mechanism of change/the way change takes place, is through the transfer of quantitative change into qualitative change. So, we have established the source and mechanism of change, what then is the direction of change? What pattern does change take on? This question is answered by the third law of dialectical materialism, the law of the negation of the negation.

Law 3: The Negation Of The Negation

The third law, the law of the negation of the negation, as stated earlier, is the direction which change moves in, the pattern it takes. The law of the negation of the negation, rather than observing development as a straight line, views it as a spiral. In other words, the development of a given thing follows this path: it starts out in a certain state. Then, this state is negated-Then, the negation itself is negated, and the original state returns, but at a higher level, and is sublated by the process. Let me give some examples: the development of a fetus. The fetus is a fetus- this is the original state. Then, through the process of birth, the fetus is negated- however, what emerges from the birth, once the birth has taken place and the negation (the birth) is itself negated, is a person- a higher form of a fetus, a sublated fetus. Engels takes butterflies as another example- this is a very on its face example: the butterfly starts as an egg- this egg is negated and the butterfly takes form- however, once the butterfly reaches sexual maturity, the butterfly reproduces and dies- the butterfly is negated, and in its place comes several more eggs, a sublated version of the original egg. The logic basically is that all change comes from contradictions- development happens when something contradictions another thing, in other words, negates it. However, this causes development because through this negation, the original form reemerges but is heightened/sublated by the process. For another example, let’s look at the classical structure of a film where there is a exposition, a conflict, and then a resolution. In the typical film, all is well, in its original state. However, at some point during the film, a conflict happens, and this state is negated. Then, in the film, the conflict is resolved/the negation is negated, and the original state of prosperity returns, but in a sublated state- heightened by the overcoming of the conflict. Now, one could posit “well what if I crush a bug? I am negating it, but surely am not causing any sublation or further development- I am just negating and destroying it.” To make this contention is to fundamentally misunderstand what the Marxist means when he talks about negation- as Lenin says, “Not empty negation, not futile negation, not sceptical negation, vacillation and doubt is characteristic and essential in dialectics which undoubt­edly contains the elements of negation and indeed as its most important element no, but negation as a movement of development retaining the positive.” In other words, in the context of dialectical materialism, negation does not mean empty negation- negation means necessarily that negation which causes further development, that negation which sublates that which it negates.


So, to recap: dialectical materialism observes the world in a way which asserts that everything is part of a totality- a whole interconnected process, within which every component or part of this totality is defined/contextualized. Furthermore, it observes that everything is constantly developing and is locked in constant motion- moreover, dialectical materialism expands upon the laws which characterize the source, mechanism and direction of this development with the three laws of dialectical materialism: the unity of opposites, the source of development (which asserts that the inherent contradictions within everything are the source of change), the transfer of quantitative change into qualitative change, the mechanism of development (which asserts that qualitative change comes as the result of quantitative changes in matter/energy), and the negation of the negation, the direction/pattern of development (which asserts that everything which develops begins as a certain state, is negated by some contradiction, and then re emerges through the negation of the negation and is sublated/risen up by the process).

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