Dialectical Materialism - SPGB (1974)


DIALECTICAL MATERIALISM, a misused concept which grew in popularity with those who defend the tortuous policies of capitalist Russia and other State capitalist countries, acquired the mystical characters of reconciling all points of view even the most contradictory.

So far as concerns its use in socialist propaganda, dialectical materialism made its appearance when Marx borrowed from Hegel the dialectical or evolutionary method of examining Man, his history and his works. But Marx reversed Hegel's method of approach to the world. To Hegel, the world was a reflection of the thought processes in man's head. He was an Idealist. To Marx, thought process was a reflection of an actual world process. He was a materialist. Hegel built his philosophical system at a time when the old, static world of feudalism was being rent by the birth of capitalism, and accepted ways and ideas were being buried into a tormented melting pot. The newly-born world was problematical, and struggling into shape. Nothing was settled. All was changing.

But whereas Hegelianism was impregnated with the idea of universal change (even though upside down) the confused, contradictory and changing policies of Soviet Russia bewilder its adherents and drive them back into a different and bastardised Hegelianism with leadership as the absolute concept. Is there a contradiction between principles and policy? No matter! An understanding of dialectics will show that everything is all right in this best of all possible Russian worlds. If the Russian workers are "free" to control their own destiny but must obey the dictates of the Stalin or Brezhnev oligarchies; if the capitalist class is the enemy and yet Russia concludes alliances with them; if imperialism is a capitalist method of fleecing and yet the "Workers' Republic" fights for markets and spheres of influence, don't worry! Dialectics explains and solves these contradictions. The more incomprehensible dialectics appears to the ordinary worker, the firmer the bonds of leadership are riveted upon him and the higher the self-appointed interpreters climb.

Dialectics means Evolution

At the time when Marx was preparing to write his analysis of capitalism, the word "evolution" was not current as an expression covering the process of the development of world capitalism. Although many thinkers recognised that certain changes occurred in nature and history, they had not yet grasped the fact that the process was universal, complementary and unified. They used the expression, "development hypo-thesis," to describe the growth of one form into an-other, within one species. The change from one species into another had not yet been recognised and was to become part of a larger outlook, the evolutionary one.

It is significant from this point of view that the word "evolution" does not appear anywhere in the Communist Manifesto, the outlook of which is now recognised as evolutionary. Evolution as an expression covering the comprehensive developmental point of view became recognised with the appearance of Darwin's Origin of Species, in which was proclaimed the theory of organic evolution. This book appeared in 1859, the same year in which Marx's Critique of Political Economy appeared, and by that time Marx had written most of the manuscript that eventually appeared under the title "Capital." Thus most of Marx's important works were either published or in manuscript form before the word "evolution" had become current as the expression of all that is bound up with the process of universal, progressive and unending change, including the mechanism that accomplishes the changes.

To the advanced thinkers of Marx's day, "dialectics" signified the science of the process by which change occurred. Since then, dialectical has been replaced by evolutionary and the older word is largely forgotten by all but the out-of-date philosophers living among cobwebs, and the advocates of that modem monstrosity, Russian "Communism." Each scientist is, and must be, an evolutionist in his own field of research, and is therefore, to that extent, a materialist. It is only when he leaves his field, particularly when he looks at society and religion, that he is likely to abandon science and enter the realms of fantasy. The weight of society and traditions, in these particular directions, is heavier than in others because here a scientific outlook is a danger to the existing social arrangements.

What Marx and Engels meant by dialectics was made clear in the latter's book, Anti-Duhring, written with the assistance of Marx. In this 'book Engels, when referring to the negation of the negation, and having instanced the growth of a grain of barley to a crop-bearing plant, etc., says: "If I say that all these processes constitute the negation of the negation, I embrace them all under this one law of progress and leave the distinctive features of each special process without particular notice. The dialectic is, as a matter of fact, nothing but the science of the universal laws of motion and evolution in nature, human society and thought." (Landmarks of Scientific Socialism - Anti-Duhring. Kerr edition 1907. p. 173).

He further says about modern materialism: "It is in a special sense no philosophy but a single concept of the universe which has to prove and realise itself, not in a science of sciences apart, but in actual science."

The mechanism of change

Now to understand the process of change in any particular department of knowledge you must discover the laws, the uniformity in the apparently haphazard and this is just what scientists do. They discover the laws in that particular department by applying the evolutionary concept. Evolution does not merely signify that there is perpetual change, but that the changes are an unfolding and further development of forces within that which is changing. The direction of the change is determined by the alignment of internal constituents and the impact of external. Everything is a part of an unending world process, no section of which can be isolated except in thought. And even when isolating everything in thought it must still be studied in connection with other things.

Change, then, consists of a combination, dissolution and recombination of elements in an ascending series, that is to say, an ever more complicated arrangement of elements. Existence is only a temporary equilibrium of opposing elements always in motion, that at a certain stage, bursts apart and forms a new combination when one element becomes present in greater abundance than another or the relation between internal quantities changes. In analysing these progressive combinations, scientists discover

the numerous laws that govern such progressive movement enabling them to fore-tell with varying degrees of accuracy the future developments. Absolute accuracy is impossible because knowledge is limited by the fact that all the items which go to make up the changing world process are so vast that they are outside the capacity of any individual, group, class, or nation. Absolute accuracy would demand the sum of the knowledge of things that have not yet swung into the human orbit. But still the limited accuracy is sufficient to enable humanity to build ships, aeroplanes, factories, rockets, atom bombs and all the rest.

Confused "dialecticians"

To illustrate the subject let us glance at two or three interpretations of the laws of dialectical materialism by two writers who published short books on the subject, David Guest and Edward Conze. Guest, in his "Dialectical Materialism," quotes the second law of dialectics as follows: "The law of unity is interpenetration, identity of opposites." This is the phrase he uses and later quotes Lenin's blessing for the same wording.

Note the word "identity." Opposites cannot be identical as long as they are opposites, and to say that one cannot exist without the other is not very illuminating because a thing cannot be opposite to nothing. It must be opposite to something that is opposite to it. Marx didn't mix unity with identity. Writing of the two poles of the expression of value in the first chapter of Capital, he said: "The relative form and the equivalent form are two intimately connected, mutually and inseparable elements of the expression of value,' but at the same time are mutually exclusive, antagonistic extremes, that is poles of the same expression." That is Marx's wording and that is the essence of the matter. Mutually dependent, inseparable but mutually exclusive. Identity of opposites is just nonsense.

And referring to the inner contradiction in opposite sides of society. Guest makes the following remarks:

"Marx found the basis of the class struggle to lie in a contradiction between the methods of production and the existing social relationships. It is this contradiction which, during a certain historic period gets expressed in an external antagonism of classes. When this is so, one class represents the force of production seeking to expand and another class represents those social relations which are hemming in the productive forces. But the basic contradiction will continue to exist in classless society and will cause a progressive development of social relationships as the productive forces themselves develop." (emphasis ours)

In this last sentence we can see the creeping paralysis of Russian propaganda. The basic contradiction is the contradiction between the method of production and the existing social relationships but, according to Guest, it will continue to exist under communism. In his breathless pursuit of contradictions he makes the mistake of thinking that they must always be of the same kind, and he has missed the basic contradiction which will be solved for good and all - the contradiction between social production and private ownership which originated in primitive society, developed during succeeding centuries and will be finally solved by socialism.

Now let us take two examples of Conze's interpretation of dialectical materialism as contained in his book: "An Introduction to Dialectical Materialism." Conze is also in a jam over the question of opposites as can be seen by this gem: "I know no general reason why opposites always must be united. The study of scientific method is not yet advanced enough to give us proof of this kind." Conze has evidently walked up the wrong street. The human race in its wisdom has decided that when two things turn up in a certain relationship to each other they will be called opposites. As long as the human race sticks to this view we can't have one opposite on its own. Conze is apparently prepared to concede that all the black door handles that have so far turned up have been black, but does not rule out the possibility that some day a black door handle may appear that is white!

Love and hate

On another page, Conze, with the backing of Freud, gives us this information:

"Freud has shown that we can have no feeling of love towards anyone without simultaneously having a more-or-less feeling of hatred towards the same person. And vice versa. No hatred can exist without containing some love. Love is the regular component of hatred, even if the quantity of love is sometimes microscopic."

That is a peculiar way of looking at the unity of opposites. On the basis of this we can prove anything and get nowhere. But let us see if we can translate it into something more obvious. A wooden stick has two ends. They are the names we give to two opposite parts of the stick, and while the stick exists as a stick the ends exist as separate, antagonistic, mutually dependent opposites. As long as we retain our sanity the ends will appear to us as two different parts of this stick, and we can't have even a microscopic bit of one end existing alongside, let alone inside the other. Of course we can throw the stick in a fire and put the same end to both, but this is a different end altogether. Let us use language reasonably and for its purpose. Love and hate are two opposite expressions of a common human emotion. They cannot both exist at the same time for the same object but they can alternate, or they can both dwindle with the dwindling of emotion.

But let us look at love and hatred from the point of view of the development of these two poles for the expression of emotion and not their temporary equilibrium in an individual who both loves and hates. Human emotion develops until it becomes differentiated into what we call love and hatred. In its earlier development the distinction is blurred but in the course of time it becomes clearly defined and it is love and hatred as such, and as opposition, that Conze is writing about. Love is love and not hate, and in a given situation they are mutually exclusive. Mixing interpenetration with identity seems to be the cause of the confusion. If we pass our finger along the stick we come to a point where it is neither one end nor the other; but we never have our finger on a little bit of one end and a large part of the other. What happens is that one end passes into the other.

There is a progressive change in nature, and thought, an evolution. What does this mean? It means a movement from the simple to the complex, an evermore complicated mixture of a comparatively few elements. An example might make this clearer. A modern piece of highly developed mechanism such as an aeroplane engine, is a mystifying sight to the uninitiated, and yet it is made up of a multitude of simple movements that taken by themselves, would mystify nobody. The human mind thrives by learning and contriving and thus craves for an evermore complicated life. It is more satisfying and therefore progressive, to the majority in the long run.

Evolution of society

Let us now complete the picture by an illustration of the laws that Marx borrowed from Hegel and applied in his own investigations. We will take an example from the evolution of society, as that is our particular concern. In pre-historic times man lived in small communities beset by forces of nature he was not yet able to control or to which he could not adjust. But the simple means of production were commonly owned. These means of production were barely sufficient to enable each member of the community to sustain life and reproduce his kind.

In the course of time, man multiplied, but the means of production multiplied at a greater rate until what was produced was more than sufficient to supply each with the necessaries of life. When this expansion had reached a certain point, the idea was born into the minds of some men that it was possible to live without working if they could persuade or force others to work for them. In order to accomplish this, a portion of the means of production that belonged to the community had to be converted into the private possession of some members of the community. An internal struggle then began that ended in the establishment of private owner-ship of the means of  production.

Since that time a constant struggle has been carried on during which the whole of the earth has become populated and private property has run a course from the ownership of a few acres of land, a small herd of animals, and a few tools, until it has reached dimensions that can no longer be controlled by one individual or one family. Private property in the means of production and distribution has become uncontrollable and threatens the stability of society.

But this development of private property has also brought about a change in the working-class, to the point that they, the producers, now occupy all positions in production and distribution. The owners have been largely relegated to the position of mere consumers of wealth, in the production of which they, as a class, take no part.

A result of this development is the growth, in the minds of the producers, of the idea that the owners are no longer necessary. The revolt against the owners. grows in volume and in time will reach a point where the producers will set about abolishing the private ownership of the means of production and substituting for it common ownership. But this common ownership will not be the small community ownership of primitive society, it will be a common ownership that welds the whole of mankind into one universal society, and each member will be able to live a secure and full life as a consequence of the past achievements of private property.

How social evolution moves

Social evolution moves in a spiral, coming back, not to its starting point, but to a point above the starting point. Let us apply the dialectical materialism of Marx to the development we have described. First, the statement that an increase in quantity beyond a certain point results in a change in quality. The increase in the means of production and the product changed the social form from communist society to private property society and will change the latter into a higher form of communist society. Communist society was negated by private property society and this will in time b6 negated by a higher form of communist society: the negation of the negation. The entire process is accomplished by the growth of antagonism and the solving of antagonism. The elements that have changed the form of society were contained within the original communal communities. The unity in the whale process is social Man. The contradictions are the contrary out-look arising from the growth of the means of production and the solution is the reduction of these outlooks to one common outlook.

What we have described is the evolution of society, but only in a broad sweep. Social science describes this process in detail, but only a few of the social scientists are free from the influence of private property ideas upon thought. And consequently the nearer they come to the present, the less scientific are their conclusions. It is one thing to learn the laws of scientific thinking, but quite another to apply those laws to social life. One of those fundamental laws is that there is nothing absolute, or static; all is relative, changing. But in the course of these changes the relation of one thing to another is a temporary equilibrium.

The capitalist and the worker are a unity as portions of mankind and portions of human society. They are in contradiction as opposing elements in a capitalist system of production. This contradiction will only be solved by the abolition of capitalist society. But this abolition can only lead to harmony by the substitution of a higher form of society for capitalism. This, in turn, can only be achieved by the single-minded struggle for socialism.

Thus the dialectical materialism of Marx is simply the science of the universal laws of motion and evolution in nature, human society and thought.

Taken from "Historical Materialism" Published by the SPGB (1974)