Basic principles of Marxism – Part Three: Dialectical materialism

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 87 June 1989


Dialectical materialism is the world outlook and method of scientific socialism. It holds that every natural, social and intellectual formation is the transitory product of given material conditions. That all phenomena come into being, develop and eventually perish as a result of the action of the contradictions within them. For Marx and Engels dialectical materialism provided the means by which the illusions of religion could be dispelled, philosophy could be retrieved from speculation to serve the liberation of humanity, and theory could be put on a scientific basis. Above all, dialectical materialism is the conception of the world which conforms with the interests of the self-emancipation of the working class and the struggle for communism and human fulfilment.

All phenomena contain contradictions which form the unity of opposites: society is divided into classes. Marx's philosophy is partisan because reality is partisan. Thought and philosophy could not be neutral because they are parts of a world in struggle. In our epoch that struggle, and the principle contradiction determining the fate of humanity, is the struggle between capital and labour. Marx was adamant, intellectuals could no longer pretend to be disengaged,

"The philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world, the point is, however, to change it." (Theses on Feuerbach).

Re-examining Marx's work on the German idealist philosopher Hegel and the materialist Feuerbach, Engels observed that "The great basic question of all philosophy, especially of more recent philosophy, is the relation of thinking and being - spirit to Nature - which is primary, spirit or Nature - the answer which the philosophers gave to this question split them into two great camps. Those who asserted the primacy of spirit to Nature and, therefore, in the last instance, assumed world creation in some form or other… comprised the camp of Idealism. The others, who regarded Nature as primary, belonged to the various schools of materialism". Materialists believe that Nature or matter is primary to spirit or ideas. Working class suffering is a result of real material conditions, these conditions can be changed, and hated social systems overthrown to allow a new society to be built free from exploitation. Until people have seen the material, class interests behind moral, religious and political phrases they will always be deceived and incapable of changing the conditions which they live to their maximum benefit. This is the task of Marxism-Leninism.


Idealism has customarily been the outlook of the ruling classes. In various forms it has depicted outstanding personalities - kings, generals, religious figures, geniuses, etc- as the real movers of history. Plato, for example, held that society should be ruled by philosopher kings. He saw the great creations of humanity as the work of individual sparks of divine inspiration. Nietzsche, like Plato, believed that although the masses are in ignorance and enemies of the truth, the individual can escape their snare. For idealism, in so far as the world changes, it is the movement of ideas. The suffering of the working class is not a consequence of their social conditions, those conditions themselves derive from some innate quality or preordained order: race, greed, human nature, IQ, fall from grace, lack of enterprise, etc.

In Britain idealism in the form of Hume and Berkeley and in Germany in the work of Liebniz, Kant and Hegel held sway in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Marx studied them and overthrew them. Kant recognised that matter exists and acts on our minds through the senses, but maintained that mind consists of logical categories not derived from matter within which we arrange the data of sense perception. Thus, the order we see in nature is not part of it but rather something the mind imposes upon it. Objective reality, "the thing in itself", is unknowable. So, the way in which we see the world, ideology, religion, etc, is not a product of the social conditions but something quite separate from it with its own internal logic. In this way what are in reality class positions present themselves as scientific, neutral, independent, etc.

Against Kant, Hegel claimed that the world was fully knowable. Knowledge was a process which advances from the contradictions present in the appearance of things, which is resolved in their essence, at a higher level of development. The action of contradictions took phenomena towards their real true nature. Quantitative change would result in eventual qualitative change. Qualitative change is only possible as a negation of the previous condition. In turn this stage will be negated. The negation of the negation demonstrates the progression from lower to higher forms, from simple to complex. Hegel applied his dialectical logic to science, history, philosophy, only being a idealist he regarded mind not matter as the sole reality. However, Hegel had broken with the metaphysical idealism that characterised much feudal thought. The latter was a conception of the world which depicted things in distinction and isolation from each other, denying their contradictory character and interconnections, and which stressed the unchanging character of the world: a view well suited to the rigid unchanging feudal order. Inspired by the French Revolution, Hegel saw contradictions and change in everything, but for him the evolution of material life was a process of thought: the unfolding of the Idea or Absolute Spirit - sublime reason thinking its way to establish a perfect rational order, (which in the case of Hegel came to be personified by the Prussian state). So, For Hegel Reason alone would destroy the illusions of ideology. Marx and reality have taught us that the confidence of the bourgeoisie in the universal qualities of the great Enlightenment corresponded only with that time when the bourgeoisie were in the ascendance and claimed to represent all society and the future. Foul money spoke louder than sweet reason.


Writing the Afterword to the Second Edition of Capital in 1873, Marx expressed his relation to Hegel thus:

"My dialectical method is, in its foundations, not only different from the Hegelian, but exactly opposite to it. For Hegel, the process of thinking, which he even transforms into an independent subject, under the name of 'the idea', is the creator of the real world, and the real world is only the external appearance of the idea. With me the reverse is true: the ideal is nothing but the material world reflected in the mind of man, and translated into forms of thought - With him it (the dialectic) is standing on it's head. It must be inverted, in order to discover the rational kernel within the mystical shell."

Writing The Holy Family Marx examined the dilemma of even the most sophisticated idealism. Why does the category "fruit" sometimes appear as apple, sometimes as almond, etc? Because, says the idealist, "fruit" is a living thing and its different sensual manifestations are nothing other than the changing consequences of the life process "fruit". The universal category "fruit" dissolves into the material expressions it gives itself: apples, almonds, etc are expressions of the idea "fruit" as it develops. Why did Greece fall? Because the central idea of Greek life, the Idea of the Beautiful, was no longer believed by the people. Why not? Because it could not live in that form for so long. So runs idealism, and really nothing is explained. For Marx and Engels, the category "fruit" derives from human experience of different fruits, the Idea of the Beautiful was a reflection of the changing, transitory social conditions of the Greek state.

Matter exists in motion. All matter, galaxies, plants, molecules and society is in a state of motion. Human beings are part of matter, as is consciousness, but exist in conflict with it. That conflict is conducted through production, which discloses human kind to itself. Dialectical materialism shows that people make history not in order to unfold some concept or destiny within them, but in order to satisfy their needs. What these needs are and how they are satisfied are determined by the level of the productive forces. As the level of the productive forces changes so social relations change. Idealism sees economic relations as a function of human nature. Dialectical materialism sees economic relations as a function of the level of productive forces. Human nature is determined by the interaction of the productive forces and objective nature. Idealism might claim that a market economy conforms with human nature (competitive, self-interested etc). Dialectical materialism states that a market economy conforms with a given level of productive forces. As these forces develop so they will conflict with the market form and this economy will be in conflict with human nature.

Matter exists independently of consciousness and its laws apply - gravity, thermo-dynamics, etc - whether we know of them or not. Marx and Engels demonstrated that society develops in accordance with certain laws again whether people know of their existence or not. These laws are independent of human consciousness. The material conditions of existence, the level of productive forces, how we obtain food, make clothes, satisfy our needs, predetermine the intellectual and cultural pursuits of society. Together the productive forces and relations of production form the mode of production. The relationship between the mode of production and ideologies and institutions is not a simple one of cause and effect.

"Political, legal, philosophical, religious, literary, artistic etc development is based on economic development. But all these react upon one another and also upon the economic basis. One must not think that the economic situation is cause, and solely active, whereas everything else is only passive effect. On the contrary, interaction takes place on the basis of economic necessity, which ultimately always asserts itself." (Engels)

The productive forces are the most mobile aspect of the mode of production. They (tools, skills, organisational abilities etc) develop faster than the production relations (ownership, control) and come into conflict with them. This conflict is resolved when new production relations replace old ones. Quantitative change gives rise to qualitative change: a negation of the negation. This is a law of human history. Only with the enormous development of the productive forces under capitalism does recognition of this law become possible. With this recognition the working class can prepare to fulfil the task of socialism - the destruction of capitalist relations and the construction of a society based upon freely associated people consciously planning production for their needs. Long the object of history, the victim of blind laws, humanity becomes the subject, shaper of the world in fashion with its developing needs and mastery of nature. Truth is proved in practice. Theory is tested by reality and its truth is measured in its contribution to human control of nature and society.

"Freedom is the recognition of necessity. Necessity is blind only in so far as it is not understood." (Engels)

Just as discoveries in Einsteinian physics confirm reality is dialectical, so the crisis of capitalism in the twentieth century confirms the correctness of Marx and Engels' theory that the productive forces have outrun the relations in which they develop and have entered into a final conflict which with them, the outcome of which will determine the fate of humanity.

Trevor Rayne


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