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Materialism, Dialectical

Materialism, Dialectical

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Dialectical materialism was the name given by the doctrinaires and political stalwarts of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) to official Soviet philosophy. Others regarded it more as an ideology, but either way dialectical materialism was a constituent part of the major political innovation of the twentieth-century, official Soviet Marxism. Whether or not dialectical materialism was well formed enough to give adequate or appropriate support to the Soviet experiment is, of course, another question, and a much-debated one. Because CPSU officials and stalwarts were powerful enough to impose their definitions on a captive audience, dialectical material-ismwhich was commonly given the acronymic form DiaMatenjoyed a remarkable shelf life during the mid-twentieth century. But, as a concept, its sell-by date is by now long past.

Dialectical was often confused with historical materialism. (In Dialectical and Historical Materialism, a book supposedly written by Joseph Stalin during the 1930s, it is unclear whether the author wishes to separate the two or run them together.) Their conflation was and is mistaken: Historical materialisms register is historiographicalit is a mode of historical and sociopolitical analysiswhereas dialectical materialism, whose register is philosophical and scientific, throws nature and its laws, along with the supposed laws of thought, into the mix. One might say that whereas dialectical encompasses historical materialism, the latter can and did flourish among thinkers to whom dialectical materialism was an embarrassmentWestern Marxists and critical theorists prominent among them. The addition of nature and thought, which was first and foremost the contribution of Friedrich Engels (18201895), did nothing to make DiaMat philosophically coherent. DiaMat was, rather, a hodgepodge of philosophy and science that confused the pursuit or advance of (mainly scientific) knowledge in the world with the attainment of truth about the world.

At a basic level, DiaMat regarded historical or social evolution as an aspect or facet of natural evolution, and as being subject to the same laws as those that govern natural evolutionlaws that are said but not shown to be dialectical in character. (Engels was as uncomfortable as many other Victorian gentlemen with the aleatory, non-teleological character of Darwins principle of natural selection.) When we ask who was the first to run together natural laws, historical laws, and the laws of thought, it is Engels, not Marx, who instantly snaps into focus. (Marx, for the record, never even used the term historical materialism, though he did not protest when Engels in a review designated Marxs method as an instance of the materialist interpretation of history.)

While it was Georgi Plekhanov, the father of Russian Marxism, who coined the term dialectical materialism, the concept was first authoritatively enacted by V. I. Lenin (18701924), who regarded Engelss and Plekhanovs legacy as giving intellectual ballast to the copy-theory of perception he advanced in Materialism and Empirio-Criticism (1908). In fact, Lenins theory of perception

involved a divergence from Engelss account, since materialism to Engels was not the same as epistemological realism. [Engelss] medley of metaphysical materialism and Hegelian dialectics was conserved by Lenin, but [Lenins] own theory of cognitionwhich was all that really mattered to himwas not strictly speaking dependent on it. Matter as an absolute substance, or constitutive element of the universe, is not required for a doctrine which merely postulates that the mind is able to arrive at universally true conclusions about the external world given to the senses (Lichtheim 1974, pp. 7071).

(As an aside, the contemporary philosopher Donald Davidson argues that the question whether an accurate representation of reality in thought is possible, let alone desirableLenin thought it was bothis undecidable and should be discarded from philosophy altogether.) The compatibility of Lenin with Engels (or Marx, for that matter) was in the event eclipsed by Russian Marxist notables need to establish orthodoxy, to produce a canon, a continuous, unbroken line of succession stretching from Hegel through Marx through Engels through Plekhanov through Lenin through Stalin (and whoever else was à la page at the time).

Engels of course could have had no foreknowledge of what Soviet stalwarts would do with his doctrine. His sights had been set, not on a nonexistent CPSU, but on German social democracy and, by extension, the Second International (18851914). Engels cannot be held directly responsible for the transformation of his speculations into a state dogma imposed on a captive audience. Even so, at a less direct level Engels has much to answer for. He did much to make the sorry Soviet sequence of DiaMat luminaries possible. These swiftly awarded Engels canonical status, and presented him as enjoying a status he had never claimed, as someone coeval and on an equal footing with Marx.

There can be no doubt that Engelss presentation of his intellectual partnership with Marx, second fiddle or no second fiddle, aided and abetted the spurious continuity between Marx and Stalin that DiaMat required. (This continuity was celebrated by cold warriors in the West as well as the East, for it provided the former with an easy arguably, too easytarget). Such continuity depended throughout on an idea Engels encouraged after Marxs death in 1883: that in writing about (and conflating) the laws of nature, history, and thought, Engels was faithfully fulfilling his part in an agreed-upon division of labor, according to which Engels produced texts that were interchangeable with Marxs texts on some subjects and supplementary to, but always compatible with, and true to Marxs works on others. Without this supposition DiaMat would not and could not have taken the seamless form it took; but there is no evidence that the supposition itself could withstand serious, critical examination.

The disservice done to Marx by the later Engels was a disservice to philosophy at large: It turned Marxism at the official level into the kind of universal weltanschauung or worldview that Marx never intended to provide. Marxism-Leninism constructed around Marxs writings, to the extent that these were made available (and they were not rushed into print as Engelss were), a key to unlock every door, a grand theory concerned with the ultimate laws and constituents of the universe. Marx himself had maintained discretion on such cosmic questions. Naturalism and cosmology were domains distant from the critique of political economy that was Marxs lifework. Worse still, it was in a sense precisely because Marx had remained reticent on these issues that his self-styled Soviet epigonesto whom such silence seemed unnervingfelt the need to fill in nonexistent gaps and construct a coherent, comprehensive system of materialist metaphysics. Marxs considered reticence, it could be (and was) argued, constituted not a failure of scholarly nerve but a well-judged reluctance to extend his arguments into areas where they could have no meaningful application.

Even though Engelss interpretation of Marxism is in significant respects at variance with what Marx had bequeathed him (and us), Engels took care to advance it in Marxs name. This immeasurably helped DiaMat set the tone for more than a generation of official Soviet Marxists. While DiaMat did not pass unquestioned in the West, particularly among Western Marxists and critical theorists, it ruled the roost and attained canonical status in the USSR, its satellites, and China. There was throughout its elaboration an inbuilt, fatal flaw: If nature is conceived materialistically, it does not lend itself to dialectical method, and if, conversely, the dialectic (a category that Hegel had confined within logic, and that was to be of no real use to Marx) is read back into nature, there is no real place or need for materialism. The misapplication of the dialectic into natural processes then either endows the structure of reality with a purposive, teleological striving (which would fly in the face of Darwin, if not of Darwinism), or it stretches the concept of dialectical change to the point of tautology: Anything that happens is said to be a development involving qualitative as well as quantitative change (see Lichtheim 1965, p. 254; cf. 247248).

Paid positions for philosophers who accepted the precepts of DiaMat (or who said they did) came into existence as the fledgling Soviet régime consolidated itself. But, unsurprisingly, between 19301955, philosophical discussions among (Soviet) Marxists were stifled, the publication of books and articles became virtually nonexistent, and the teaching of philosophy in the USSR was greatly reduced (Loone 1993, p. 158). Engelss third law of dialectics (the negation of the negation) was unceremoniously jettisoned by Stalin, and Engelss first law (the transformation of quantity into quality) was relegated by Chairman Mao to the status of a special instance of Engelss second law (the interpenetration of opposites). These doctrinal modifications could be regarded as refinements, or as signs that DiaMat was beginning to collapse beneath its own weighteven before the political system it was said to uphold imploded at the institutional level. Lichtheim has called DiaMat an intellectual disaster, and it is not hard to see why. It was also, after all, a kind of politically charged quodlibet for the philosophically tone-deaf.

SEE ALSO Marxism

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Bhaskar, Roy. 1993. Dialectic. In The Blackwell Dictionary of Twentieth-Century Social Thought, ed. William Outhwaite and Tom Bottomore, 154157. Oxford: Blackwell.

Graham, Loren R. 1972. Science and Philosophy in the Soviet Union. New York: Knopf.

Jordan, Z. A. 1967. The Evolution of Dialectical Materialism: A Philosophical and Sociological Analysis. London and New York: Macmillan.

Kuusinen, O. W., et al. 1960. Fundamentals of Marxism-Leninism. Trans. and ed. Clemens Dutt. Moscow: Foreign Language Publishing House.

Lichtheim, George. 1965. Dialectical Materialism. In his Marxism: An Historical and Critical Study, 244248. 2nd rev. ed. New York: Praeger.

Lichtheim, George. 1974 (1971). On the Interpretation of Marxs Thought. In his From Marx to Hegel, 6379. New York: Seabury.

Loone, Eero. 1993. Dialectical Materialism. In The Blackwell Dictionary of Twentieth Century Social Thought, ed. William Outhwaite and Tom Bottomore, 157158. Oxford: Blackwell.

Marcuse, Herbert. 1958. Soviet Marxism. London and New York: Columbia University Press.

Thomas, Paul. 1999. Engels and Scientific Socialism. In Engels after Marx, ed. Manfred B. Steger and Terrell Carver, 215231. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Wetter, Gustav A. 1958. Dialectical Materialism: A Historical and Systematic Survey of Philosophy in the Soviet Union. Trans. Peter Heath. Rev. ed. London and New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Paul Thomas

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Dialectical Materialism

DIALECTICAL MATERIALISM

A concept in Soviet Marxist-Leninist ideology.

Dialectical materialism was the underlying approach to the interpretation of history and society in Soviet Marxist-Leninist ideology. According to Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, in the history of philosophy, the clash of contradictory ideas has generated constant movement toward higher levels. Karl Marx poured new content into the dialectic with his materialist interpretation of history, which asserted that the development of the forces of production was the source of the conflicts or contradictions that would demolish each stage of society and lead to its replacement with a higher stage. Marx's collaborator, Friedrich Engels, systematized the three laws of the dialectic that were to figure prominently in the official Soviet ideology: (a) the transformation of quantity into quality; (b) the unity of opposites; and (c) the negation of the negation. According to the first of those laws, within any stage of development of society, changes accumulate gradually, until further change cannot be accommodated within the framework of that stage and must proceed by a leap of revolutionary transformation, like that from feudal society to capitalism. The second law signifies that within any stage, mutually antagonistic forces are built into to the character of the system; for instance, the capitalists and the proletariat are locked in a relationship of struggle, but as long as capitalism survives, the existence of each of those classes presumes the existence of the other. The third law of the dialectic supposedly reflects the reality that any new stage of society (i.e., capitalism) has replaced or negated a previous stage, but will itself eventually be replaced by still another stage of development (i.e., communism).

In Soviet Marxist-Leninist ideology under successive political leaders, though the insistence on the universal validity of the laws of the dialectic became highly dogmatic, the application of those laws was continually adapted, depending on the political objectives and calculations of the top leaders. Most crucial is the example of Josef Stalin, who insisted that the dialectic took the form of destructive struggle within capitalist societies, but tried to exempt Soviet socialism from the harshness of such internal conflict by arguing that in socialism, the conscious planning and control of change eliminated fundamental inconsistency between the material base and the political-administrative superstructure. Thus in socialism the interplay of nonantagonistic contradictions could open the way to gradual leaps of relatively painless qualitative transformation. Mikhail Gorbachev later repudiated that reasoning as having been the philosophical rationale for evading necessary reforms in political and administrative structures in the Soviet Union from the 1930s to the 1980s.

See also: hegel, georg wilhelm friedrich; lenin, vladimir ilich; marxism

bibliography

Avineri, Shlomo. (1971). Karl Marx: Social and Political Thought. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Carver, Terrell. (1983). Marx and Engels: The Intellectual Relationship. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Evans, Alfred B., Jr. (1993). Soviet Marxism-Leninism: The Decline of an Ideology. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Alfred B. Evans Jr.

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dialectical materialism

dialectical materialism, official philosophy of Communism, based on the writings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, as elaborated by G. V. Plekhanov, V. I. Lenin, and Joseph Stalin. In theory dialectical materialism is meant to provide both a general world view and a specific method for the investigation of scientific problems. The basic tenets are that everything is material and that change takes place through "the struggle of opposites." Because everything contains different elements that are in opposition, "self-movement" automatically occurs; the conflict of opposing forces leads to growth, change, and development, according to definite laws. Communist scientists were expected to fit their investigations into this pattern, and official approval of scientific theories in the USSR was determined to some extent by their conformity to dialectical materialism (see Lysenko, Trofim Denisovich). Use of these principles in history and sociology is sometimes called historical materialism. Under these doctrines the social, political, and intellectual life of society reflect only the economic structure, since human beings create the forms of social life solely in response to economic needs. Men are divided into classes by their relations to the means of production—land and capital. The class that controls the means of production inevitably exploits the other classes in society; it is this class struggle that produces the dynamic of history and is the source of progress toward a final uniformity. Historical materialism is deterministic; that is, it prescribes that history inevitably follows certain laws and that individuals have little or no influence on its development. Central to historical materialism is the belief that change takes place through the meeting of two opposing forces (thesis and antithesis); their opposition is resolved by combination produced by a higher force (synthesis). Historical materialism has had many advocates outside the Communist world.

See G. Wetter, Dialectical Materialism (1958, repr. 1973); A. Spirkin, Dialectical Materialism (1983); I. Yurkovets, Philosophy of Dialectical Materialism (1984).

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dialectical materialism

dialectical materialism Scientific theory and philosophical basis of Marxism. It asserts that everything is material, and that change results from the struggle of opposites according to definite laws. Its main application was in the analysis of human history. Karl Marx agreed with Hegel that the course of history is logically dialectical, so that true social change can only occur when two opposing views are resolved through a new synthesis, rather than one establishing itself as true. Marx believed that Hegel was wrong to define dialectics as purely spiritual or logical. For Marx, the proper dialectical subject was material experience. According to his theory of historical materialism, history derived from economic or social realities.

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materialism, dialectical

materialism, dialectical See DIALECTIC.

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