Dialectical materialism

Dialectical materialism, according to many followers of Karl Marx's thinking, is the philosophical basis of Marxism.

The term

Dialectical materialism was coined in 1887 by Joseph Dietzgen, a socialist tanner who corresponded with Marx both during and after the failed 1848 German Revolution.Casual mention of the term is also found in Kautsky's Frederick Engels, written in the same year. Marx himself had talked about the "materialist conception of history", which was later referred as "historical materialism" by Engels. Engels further exposed the "materialist dialectic" — not "dialectical materialism" — in his Dialectics of Nature in 1883. Georgi Plekhanov, the father of Russian Marxism, later introduced the term dialectical materialism to Marxist literature. Stalin further codified it as Diamat and imposed it as the doctrine of Marxism-Leninism. The term wasn't coupled by Marx himself, and it refers to the combination dialectics and materialism in Marx's thinking as material forces causing social and economic changes. It is sometimes seen complementary to historical materialism which is the name given to Marx's methodology in the study of society, economics and history.


Dialectical materialism originates from two major aspects of Marx's philosophy. One is his transformation of Hegel's idealistic understanding of dialectics into a materialist one, commonly referred as that he "put Hegel's dialectics back on its feet". The other is his core idea that "the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles." as stated in The Communist Manifesto in 1848.

Marxism is based in the scientific conviction that everything can be explained by Matter alone. This qualifies Marxism as a fundamentally materialist philosophy. According to materialism, matter is the total explanation for space, nature, man, psychic consciousness, human intelligence, society, history and every other aspect of existence. Marxism assigns the task of knowing all truth to science. If science can get to know everything about matter, then it can get to know about everything. Conclusively, matter is accepted as the beginning and ending of all reality. Matter's sovereignty in determining the course of nature is a vital part of Marxist thought and what separates dialectical materialism from Hegelian method of dialectical idealism.


Dialectical materialism is essentially characterized by the thesis that history is the product of class struggles and follows the general Hegelian principle of philosophy of history, that is the development of the thesis into its antithesis which is sublated by the "Aufhebung" (~ synthesis, a term not employed by Hegel in describing his dialectics.) — which conserves the thesis and the antithesis while at the same time abolishing it (Aufheben — this contradiction explains the difficulties of Hegel's thought). Hegel's dialectics aims at explaining the growth and development of human history. He considered that truth was the product of history and passed through various moments, including the moment of error, as error, or also negativity, is part of the development of truth. Marx's dialectical materialism considers, against Hegel's idealism, that history is not the product of the Spirit (Geist or also Zeitgeist — the "Spirit of the Time") but the effect of material class struggle in society. Theory thus has its roots in the materiality of social existence.

Three laws of Dialectical materialism

Marxism sets out to answer questions related to both nature and humanity, including the questions on:

  • the origin of energy or motion in nature;
  • the cause why galaxies, solar system, planets, animals and all kingdoms of nature constantly increase their numerical quantity;
  • the origin of life, the origin of species and the origin of consciousness and mind;
  • the origin of societal order and its direction; and
  • the end of history and how it looks like.

Marx and Engels answer all of these questions by utilizing the three laws of motion, i.e. dialectics, first discovered by the Greek philosophers and codified by Hegel. These three laws are discovered within nature instead of being superimposed upon it.

Law of Opposites

Marx and Engels started with the observation that everything in existence is a unity of opposites. For example, electricity is characterized by a positive and negative charge and atoms consist of protons and electrons which are unified but are ultimately contradictory forces. Even humans through introspection find that they are a unity of opposite qualities. Masculinity and femininity, selfishness and altruism, humbleness and pride, and so forth. The Marxist conclusion being that everything "contains two mutually incompatible and exclusive but nevertheless equally essential and indispensable parts or aspects." The basic concept being that this unity of opposites in nature is the thing that makes each entity auto-dynamic and provides this constant motivation for movement and change. This idea was borrowed from Georg Wilhelm Hegel who said: "Contradiction in nature is the root of all motion and of all life."

This dichotomy is often found in nature. A star is held together by gravity trying to push all the molecules to the center, and heat trying to send them as far from the center as possible. If either force is completely successful the star ceases to be, if heat is victorious it explodes into a supernova, if gravity is victorious it implodes into a neutron star or a black hole. Furthermore, living things strive to balance internal and external forces to maintain homeostasis, which is nothing more than a balance of opposing forces such as acidity and alkalinity.

Some opposites are antagonistic, as in the competition between capitalists and laborers. Factory owners offer the lowest wages possible, while workers seek to maximize wages. Sometimes this antagonism sparks strikes or lockouts.

Law of Negation

The law of negation was created to account for the tendency in nature to constantly increase the numerical quantity of all things. Marx and Engels demonstrated that entities tend to negate themselves in order to advance or reproduce a higher quantity. This means that the nature of opposition which produces conflict in each element and gives them motion also tends to negate the thing itself. This dynamic process of birth and destruction is what causes entities to advance. This law commonly simplified as the cycle of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis.

In nature Engels often cited the case of the barley seed which, in its natural state, germinates and out of its own death or negation produces a plant, the plant in turn grows to maturity and is itself negated after bearing many barley seeds. Thus, all nature is constantly expanding through cycles.

In society we have the case of class. For example the aristocracy was negated by the bourgeoisie, the bourgeoisie then created the proletariat that will one day negate them. Illustrating that the cycle of negation is eternal as each class creates its "grave-digger", its successor, as soon as it finishes burying its creator.

Law of Transformation

This law states that continuous quantitative development results in qualitative "leaps" in nature whereby a completely new form or entity is produced. This is how "quantitative development becomes qualitative change". Transformation allows for the reverse with quality affecting quantity.

This theory draws many parallels to the theory of Evolution. Marxist philosophers concluded that entities, through quantitative accumulations are also inherently capable of "leaps" to new forms and levels of reality. The law illustrates that during a long period of time, through a process of small, almost irrelevant accumulations, nature develops noticeable changes in direction.

This can be illustrated by the eruption of a volcano which is caused by years of pressure building up. The volcano may no longer be a mountain but when its lava cools it will become fertile land where previously there was none. A revolution which is caused by years of tensions between opposing factions in society acts as a social illustration. The law occurs in reverse. An example would be, that by introducing better (changing quality) tools to farm, the tools will aid the increase in the amount (change quantity) of what is produced.

Materialism in dialectical materialism

Marx's thesis concerned Epicurus and Democritus' atomism, considered as the founder, along with stoicism, of materialist philosophy. He was thus familiar with Lucretius' theory of clinamen, etc. Materialism asserts the primacy of the material world: in short, matter precedes thought. Additionally, materialism holds that the world is material; that all phenomena in the universe consist of "matter in motion", wherein all things are interdependent and interconnected and develop in accordance with natural law; that the world exists outside us and independently of our perception of it; that thought is a reflection of the material world in the brain, and that the world is in principle knowable.

"The ideal is nothing else than the material world reflected by the human mind, and translated into forms of thought." --Karl Marx, Das Kapital, Vol. 1.
Marx thus endorsed a materialist philosophy against Hegel's idealism; he "turned Hegel's dialectics upside down". However, Marx's materialist position is not to be confused with simple materialism: in fact, he criticized classic materialism as another idealist philosophy. According to the famous Theses on Feuerbach (1845), philosophy had to stop "interpreting" the world in endless metaphysical debates in order to start "changing" the world, which the rising workers' movement, observed by Engels in England (Chartist movement) and by Marx in France and Germany, was precisely doing. Historical materialism is therefore the primacy accorded to class struggle. The ultimate sense of Marx's materialism philosophy is that philosophy itself must take position in the class struggle, if it is not to be reduced to spiritualist Idealism (such as Kant or Hegel's philosophies) which are, in fact, only ideologies, that is the material product of social existence. Marx's materialism thus later opened up the way for Frankfurt School's critical theory, which combined philosophy with the social sciences in an attempt to diagnose the ailments of society.

Dialectics in dialectical materialism

Dialectics is the science of the general and abstract laws of the development of nature, society, and thought. Its principal features are:

  • The universe is not a disconnected mix of things isolated from each other, but an integral whole, with the result that things are interdependent.
  • Nature - the natural world or cosmos - is in a state of constant motion:

"All nature, from the smallest thing to the biggest, from a grain of sand to the sun, from the protista to man, is in a constant state of coming into being and going out of being, in a constant flux, in a ceaseless state of movement and change." --Friedrich Engels, Dialectics of Nature.

  • Development is a process whereby insignificant and imperceptible quantitative changes lead to fundamental, qualitative changes. The latter occur not gradually, but rapidly and abruptly, in the form of a leap from one state to another. A simple example from the physical world might be the heating of water: a one degree increase in temperature is a quantitative change, but between 99 and 100 degrees there is a qualitative change - water to steam.

"Merely quantitative differences, beyond a certain point, pass into qualitative changes." --Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. 1.

  • All things contain within themselves internal dialectical contradictions, which are the primary cause of motion, change, and development in the world. It is important to note that 'dialectical contradiction' is not about simple 'opposites' or 'negation'. For formal approaches, the core message of 'dialectical opposition / contradiction' must be understood as 'some sense' opposition between the objects involved in a directly associated context.

For the application of the dialectic to history see Historical materialism.

Engels' laws of dialectics

As mentioned above, Engels determined three laws of dialectics from his reading of Hegel's Science of Logic. They are:

  • The law of the unity and conflict of opposites;
  • The law of the passage of quantitative changes into qualitative changes;
  • The law of the negation of the negation

The first of Engels' laws or expressions was seen by both Hegel and Lenin as the central feature of a dialectical understanding of things and originates with the ancient Ionian philosopher Heraclitus.

The second is taken by Hegel from Aristotle, and is equated with what scientists call "phase transitions". It may be traced to the ancient Ionian philosophers (particularly Anaximenes), from whom Aristotle inherited the concept, as well as by Hegel and Engels, and in each case the phase transitions of water is one of the main expositions of quantity into quality and vice versa.

The third, the negation of the negation, is Hegel's distinct expression. It was the expression through which (amongst other things) Hegel's dialectic became fashionable during his life-time.

Engels presupposes, in drawing up these laws, a holistic approach outlined above and in Lenin's three elements of dialectic below, and emphasizes elsewhere that all things are in motion.

Lenin's elements of dialectics

Lenin made some brief notes outlining three "elements" of logic after reading Hegel's Science of Logic in 1914. They are:

Lenin develops these in a further series of notes, and appears to argue that "the transition of quantity into quality and vice versa" is an example of the unity and opposition of opposites expressed tentatively as "not only the unity of opposites, but the transitions of every determination, quality, feature, side, property into every other [into its opposite?]."

History of dialectical materialism

Lenin's contributions

Dialectical materialism was first elaborated by Lenin in Materialism and Empiriocriticism in 1908 around three axes: the "materialist inversion" of Hegelian dialectics, the historicity of ethical principles ordered to class struggle and the convergence of "laws of evolution" in physics (Helmholtz), biology (Darwin) and in political economics (Marx). Lenin hence took position between a historicist Marxism (Labriola) and a determinist Marxism, close to "social Darwinism" (Kautsky). New discoveries in physics, including x-rays, electrons, and the beginnings of quantum mechanics challenged previous conceptions of matter and materialism. Matter seemed to be disappearing. Lenin disagreed:
'Matter disappears' means that the limit within which we have hitherto known matter disappears and that our knowledge is penetrating deeper; properties of matter are disappearing that formerly seemed absolute, immutable and primary, and which are now revealed to be relative and characteristic only of certain states of matter. For the sole 'property' of matter with whose recognition philosophical materialism is bound up is the property of being an objective reality, of existing outside of the mind.

Lenin was following on from the work of Friedrich Engels, who had noted that "with each epoch-making discovery even in the sphere of natural science, materialism has to change its form. One of Lenin's challenges was distancing materialism as a viable philosophical outlook from what he referred to as the "vulgar materialism" expressed in statements like "the brain secretes thought in the same way as the liver secretes bile" (attributed to 18th century physician Pierre Jean Georges Cabanis, 1757-1808); "metaphysical materialism" (matter is composed of immutable, unchanging particles); and 19th-century "mechanical materialism" (matter was like little molecular billiard balls interacting according to simple laws of mechanics). Lenin's (and Engels') solution to this challenge was "dialectical materialism", where matter was understood in the broader sense of "objective reality" and consistent with new developments in science.

Lukács' additions

Georg Lukács, who had been minister of Culture in Béla Kun's short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic (1919), published History and Class Consciousness in 1923, in which he defined dialectical materialism as the knowledge of society as a whole, knowledge which in itself was immediately the class consciousness of the proletariat. In the first chapter, " What is Orthodox Marxism?", Lukács defined orthodoxy as the fidelity to the "Marxist method", and not to the "dogmas":
"Orthodox Marxism, therefore, does not imply the uncritical acceptance of the results of Marx’s investigations. It is not the ‘belief’ in this or that thesis, nor the exegesis of a ‘sacred’ book. On the contrary, orthodoxy refers exclusively to method. It is the scientific conviction that dialectical materialism is the road to truth and that its methods can be developed, expanded and deepened only along the lines laid down by its founders." (§1)
Lukács criticized revisionist attempts by calling for the return to this Marxist method. In much the same way that Althusser would later define Marxism and psychoanalysis as "conflictual sciences", Lukács conceives "revisionism" and political splits as inherent to Marxist theory and praxis, insofar as dialectical materialism is, according to him, the product of class struggle:
"For this reason the task of orthodox Marxism, its victory over Revisionism and utopianism can never mean the defeat, once and for all, of false tendencies. It is an ever-renewed struggle against the insidious effects of bourgeois ideology on the thought of the proletariat. Marxist orthodoxy is no guardian of traditions, it is the eternally vigilant prophet proclaiming the relation between the tasks of the immediate present and the totality of the historical process." (end of §5)

Furthermore, he stated that "The premise of dialectical materialism is, we recall: 'It is not men’s consciousness that determines their existence, but on the contrary, their social existence that determines their consciousness.'... Only when the core of existence stands revealed as a social process can existence be seen as the product, albeit the hitherto unconscious product, of human activity." (§5) In line with Marx's thought, he thus criticized the individualist bourgeois philosophy of the subject, which founds itself on the voluntary and conscious subject. Against this ideology, he asserts the primacy of social relations. Existence — and thus the world — is the product of human activity; but this can be seen only if the primacy of social process on individual consciousness is accepted. He classified this consciousness as an effect of ideological mystification. His thesis doesn't entail that Lukács restrains human liberty on behalf of some kind of sociological determinism: to the contrary, this production of existence is the possibility of praxis.

This heterodox definition, however, which he maintained by asserting that "orthodox Marxism" is fidelity to the Marxist "method", and not to "dogmas", was condemned, along with Karl Korsch's work, in July 1924, during the Vth Comintern Congress, by Grigory Zinoviev.

Stalin's doctrine of diamat

Following the 1917 October Revolution, Soviet philosophy divided itself between "dialecticians" (Deborin) and "mechanists" (Bukharin). In 1931, Stalin decided the issue of the debate between dialecticians and mechanists by publishing a decree which identified dialectical materialism as pertaining solely to Marxism-Leninism. He then codified it in Dialectical and Historical Materialism (1938) by enumerating the "laws of dialectics", which are the grounds of particular disciplines and in particular of the science of history, and which guarantees their conformity to the "proletarian conception of the world". Thus, diamat was imposed on most Communist parties affiliated to the Third International. Diamat became the official philosophy of the Soviet Union and remained as such until its fall.

Marxist criticisms of dialectical materialism

Dialectical materialism has been criticized by many Marxist theorists, including Marxist philosophers Louis Althusser and Antonio Gramsci, who proposed a Marxist "philosophy of praxis" instead. Other thinkers in Marxist philosophy have had recourse to the original texts of Marx and Engels and have created other Marxist philosophical projects and concepts which present alternatives to dialectical materialism. As early as 1937, Mao Zedong proposed another interpretation in his essay On Contradiction, in which he rejected the "laws of dialectics" and insisted on the complexity of the contradiction. Mao's text inspired Althusser's work on the contradiction, which was a driving theme in his well-known essay For Marx (1965). Althusser attempted to nuance the Marxist concept of "contradiction" by borrowing the concept of "overdetermination" from psychoanalysis. He criticized the teleological reading of Marx as a return to Hegel's idealism. Althusser developed the concept of "random materialism" (matérialisme aléatoire) in contrast to dialectical materialism, a move which grew out of Althusser's project of 'anti-humanism,' or the "philosophy of the subject." In an attempt to approach the problem in a new way, Italian philosopher Ludovico Geymonat constructed a historical epistemology from dialectical materialism. Althusser soon backed the epistemological method centred on the rejection of the dichotomy between subject and object, which makes Marx's work incompatible with its antecedents.


"The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question. Man must prove the truth, i.e., the reality and power, the this-worldliness of his thinking in practice." --Karl Marx, Theses on Feuerbach


Selected readings on dialectical materialism

See also



External links

  • @nti-dialectics – website presenting contemporary criticism of dialectical materialism

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