Dialectical Materialism

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Marxism-Leninism is the name given to the form of Marxist theory that was accepted and taught by the Russian and Chinese Communist parties and the Communist parties associated with them. Marxism-Leninism is both a view of the world as a whole and of human society and its development. The view of human society is called historical materialism, the name bestowed upon it by Friedrich Engels. The view of the world as a whole is called dialectical materialism, a title devised by G. V. Plekhanov, the Russian Marxist, and first used by him in an article published in 1891. Marxist-Leninists regard dialectical materialism as the basis of their philosophy and generally begin comprehensive expositions of that philosophy with an account of it. One might say that dialectical materialism constitutes the logic, ontology, and epistemology of Marxism-Leninism, and historical materialism its ethics, politics, and philosophy of history. Sometimes, however, the term dialectical materialism is used for the fundamentals of Marxism-Leninism as a whole. When dialectical materialism is thus conceived, the natural sciences are the working-out of dialectical materialism in the nonhuman sphere and historical materialism its working-out in the sphere of human society. But these slight differences do not affect the content of the theory.

Marx's Materialism

Approving references to materialism are prominent in Karl Marx's writings, especially in the early works. In The Holy Family (1845), for instance, he argued that one branch of eighteenth-century French materialism developed into natural science and the other branch into socialism and communism. Thus he regarded "the new materialism," as he called it, as a source of the social movement that he believed was destined to revolutionize human life. Materialism, as Marx understood it, was very closely connected with social criticism and social development. One aspect of materialism that Marx supported was its rejection of idealist attempts to undermine and belittle sense experience. He held that there is something dishonest and irresponsible in philosophies which deny that sense experience reveals the existence of an independent material world; hence his view of knowledge was realist, both on philosophical and moral grounds. In taking this view he was much influenced by Ludwig Feuerbach. Like Feuerbach, Marx rejected speculative philosophy, or metaphysics, as we should call it today, on the ground that the truth about the world and society can only be discovered by the use of empirical scientific methods. In a broad sense of the term, therefore, Marx was a positivist, in that he denied the possibility of any knowledge of the world that is not based on sense experience. Hence, Marx's view of the world was naturalistic and opposed to any form of religion or supernaturalism. Again under the influence of Feuerbach, Marx held that belief in God, in an afterlife, and in heaven and hell cannot be rationally justified, but may be explained (indeed, explained away) in terms of the unfulfilled needs and hopes of men whose lives are frustrated by an oppressive social order. Marx held, too, that men are not immaterial souls conjoined with material bodies. In his view, psychophysical dualism is a relic of supernaturalism and must be rejected with it. Marx did not systematically develop this view as part of a philosophical argument but took it as the basis of his view, expressed in The Holy Family and in The German Ideology (18451846), that repression of the instincts and natural desires is bad. Marx, therefore, thought that thinking is inseparable from acting and that scientific advance and practical improvement are in principle bound up with one another. Marx's materialism, therefore, is very wide in scope, combining empiricism, realism, belief in the use of scientific methods pragmatically conceived, rejection of supernaturalism, and rejection of mind-body dualism. Animating these aspects of his view is the conviction that they support and justify the socialist diagnosis of social ills and the prediction that a communist form of society must come.

Marx was very much influenced by the philosophy of G. W. F. Hegel. For example, in The Holy Family he borrowed almost verbatim some arguments from Hegel's Encyclopedia against abstract and unrealistic thinking, and his earliest, unfinished sketch of his theory of man and society, the so-called Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (1844), was both a critique of political economy and a critique of the philosophy of Hegel. Marx's interest in Hegel continued throughout his life. In a letter to Engels in 1858 Marx wrote that he had been looking at Hegel's Logic and would like, if he had time, to write a short work setting out what was wrong and what was valuable in Hegel's method. Later, in the Preface to the second edition of Volume I of Capital, Marx referred to "the rational kernel" of Hegel's dialectical method and said that in Capital he had "toyed with the use of Hegelian terminology when discussing the theory of value." This sentence does not indicate a very strong attachment to Hegel's dialectic, for "toyed with" (kokettierte sogar hier und da ) is appropriate to a superficial liaison, and the word terminology (Ausdrücksweise ) might be meant to contrast with the substance of what is being said. But although Marx was as much opposed to the speculative element in Hegelianism as any professed positivist could have been, he was deeply influenced by the Hegelian dialectical method. Jean Hippolyte has shown in his Études sur Marx et Hegel (Paris, 1955) how very closely the structure of Capital is linked with Marx's earlier, more consciously Hegelian writings, so that some of the Hegelian substance persists, although the Hegelian terminology is less apparent. One important Hegelian legacy is the view that social development takes place through struggle and opposition. Another is that the transition from one important form of society to another is by means of sudden leaps rather than by merely gradual stages. Thus Marx considered that different social laws applied at different historical epochs. Again, Marx shared Hegel's aversion to abstraction and his predilection for total views, but in this he was at one with Auguste Comte as well as with Hegel. These views of Marx's, however, related to the theory of human society. He showed little inclination to linger over questions of ontology. There is a reference in Volume I of Capital to the "law discovered by Hegel in his Logic, that at a certain point what have been purely quantitative changes become qualitative," and at this point Marx said that some chemical changes take place in accordance with this law. However, Marx left it to Engels to pursue the matter.

Engels and Dialectical Materialism

Engels took up the law of quantity and quality in his Herr Eugen Dühring's Revolution in Science (1878), generally known as Anti-Dühring, which had appeared as a series of articles in the Leipzig Vorwärts in 1877. Engels's work was directed against Eugen Dühring, a well-known non-Marxist socialist and publicist, who had vigorously criticized some Hegelian features in Marxist writers as being speculative, metaphysical, and unscientific. Thus Engels, like Marx, felt called upon to defend the Hegelianism of his youth, although, again like Marx, he claimed to have purged it of its speculative and idealist elements. In the Preface to the second edition of Anti-Dühring (1885) Engels stated that he had read the whole of the manuscript to Marx before it was printed and that Chapter 10 of Part II (on economics and its history) had been written by Marx himself and abridged by Engels. This chapter has no direct relevance to dialectical materialism and thus has some significance as an indication of Marx's own interests.

philosophy of nature

Engels apologized in a general way in the preface to the second edition of Anti-Dühring for inadequacies in his knowledge of theoretical natural science, although he retracted nothing. He also spoke with approval of "the old philosophy of nature." By this he meant a philosophical examination of the phenomena of the natural world claiming to be more fundamental and general in scope than the particular researches of individual men of science. Such inquiries were more frequent at a time when the term philosopher was applied to philosophers and scientists alike and the role of the natural scientist was less definitely specified than it became in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Engels alluded to Hegel's contributions to the philosophy of nature in the second main triad of the Encyclopedia and called attention in particular to Section 270 in which Hegel criticized Isaac Newton's theory of forces. Hegel, like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schelling (and William Blake), was highly critical of Newton's cosmological theories, and Engels believed that Hegel, at any rate, was being justified by subsequent researches. It should be noted, therefore, that Engels had no objection to the practice of philosophizing about the nature of the physical world but, on the contrary, was consciously reviving an older, and apparently abandoned, intellectual tradition. By doing this, he introduced into the Marxist theory of nature one of its most characteristic features: the claim that the specialized sciences of nature need to be supplemented by a unified philosophy of nature and that as they develop, the natural sciences are constantly verifying the views first propounded by Hegel in his Logic and in his Encyclopedia.

From 1873 onward Engels had been studying the natural sciences with a view to writing a comprehensive work on the dialectical characteristics of the material world. Part of what he did was incorporated into Anti-Dühring, but much of his more detailed work remained unpublished until 1925, when an edition of the surviving manuscripts was published by the Marx-Engels Institute in Moscow under the title Dialectics of Nature. This edition was found to be faulty in various ways, and corrected versions were subsequently published and translated. The work contains, inter alia, an essay on electricity (a subject much favored by Schelling and other romantics), in which Engels says that the basic thought of Hegel and Michael Faraday is the same; an attack on parapsychology as "the shallowest empiricism" and a proposal that it be rejected outright on general grounds of theory; notes on infinite series and infinite numbers, which he takes to prove that the world is both infinite and contradictory; and sketches for an attack on Ludwig Büchner and other nonsocialist, nondialectical materialists popular during the second half of the nineteenth century. Engels's criticism of Büchner is particularly interesting since, among a series of passages probably intended to document Anti-Dühring, there is a quotation from Büchner's Kraft und Stoff in which, while attacking supernaturalism and idealist philosophy, Büchner wrote: "It is needless to observe that our expositions have nothing in common with the conceptions of the old 'philosophy of nature.' The singular attempts to construe nature out of philosophy instead of from observation have failed, and brought the adherents of that school into such discredit that the name 'philosopher of nature' has become a bye-word and a nickname." Engels regarded this as an "attack on philosophy" and accused Büchner of "shallow materialist popularisation." Engels made his own attitude quite clear by appending passages from Hegel's "Philosophy of Nature."

engels on marxist materialism

After Marx's death in 1883 Engels was occupied in editing the unpublished parts of Capital, but in 1886, in some articles that appeared in the Social Democratic journal Die Neue Zeit, he turned his attention once more to fundamental philosophical issues. These articles were published in 1888 in book form under the title Ludwig Feuerbach and the Outcome of Classical German Philosophy. In this work Engels set out to explain what sort of materialism Marxist materialism is and to show how it is related to the Hegelian philosophy. Engels renewed his support for the dialectical structure of Hegel's philosophy, although, of course, he rejected its idealist aspects. There is an account of Engels's epistemology, in which a pragmatistic point of view is emphasized.

Mind and matter

According to the argument of Ludwig Feuerbach there are two and only two fundamental but opposing philosophical alternatives: idealism, according to which mind is primary in the universe and matter is created by, or dependent upon, mind; and materialism, according to which matter is the primary being and mind the subordinate and dependent feature of the world. It will be seen that in stating this view Engels extended the term idealism beyond its usual philosophical meaning to comprise not only such views as George Berkeley's immaterialism and Hegel's absolute idealism but also any form of theism. Thus, in Engels's classification, St. Thomas Aquinas and René Descartes would both be regarded as idealists because they both held that an immaterial deity created the material world. It should be noted that in this view mind is held to be secondary but not nonexistent. Engels took the widely held natural-scientific point of view that there was once a time when only matter existed and that mind evolved from it and must remain dependent upon it. He did not hold the theory of reductive materialism, according to which mind is just a form of matter.

Knowledge and perception

In Ludwig Feuerbach Engels also gave a brief account of knowledge and sense perception. He considered that in sense perception the material things in the neighborhood of the percipient's body are somehow "reflected" in his brain "as feelings, instinct, thoughts, volitions." Engels recognized that the theory that in perception the immediate object of awareness is a "reflection" could lead to agnosticism or idealism, for a skeptic could question whether we can ever know of the existence of material things at all if all that we directly apprehend are reflections of them. This, indeed, is a line of thought that Berkeley developed in criticizing John Locke's theory that it is ideas, not physical things, that are directly apprehended. Engels's answer was that what must dispel any such doubts is "practice, viz. experiment and industry." His discussion is vague, but he appears to have thought that skeptical doubts about the existence of material things are rendered untenable by a consideration of what we do to and with things. A skeptic's or idealist's practice belies his theories. Furthermore, Engels held that the truth of scientific theories about the material world is established by the power they give men to manufacture new substances and things and to bring the forces of nature under human control. "If we are able to prove the correctness of our conception of a natural process by making it ourselves, bringing it into being out of its conditions and using it for our own purposes into the bargain, then there is an end of the Kantian incomprehensible 'thing-in-itself'" (Ludwig Feuerbach, pp. 3233). Engels appears to have conflated the problem of our perception of the external world with the problem of how scientific laws are established, but it is clear that he believed that the notion of practice can help to solve them both. In the Preface to Ludwig Feuerbach Engels printed for the first time, under the title Theses on Feuerbach, some jottings made by Marx in 1845. The doctrine of the philosophical importance of practice is stated in these theses, particularly in the first, second, fifth, and eleventh. One of the things that Marx appears to have been asserting in them is that perception is a deed or activity of the perceiving corporeal man and not merely a passivity of an immaterial mind. In 1892, in the introduction to some chapters from Anti-Dühring published separately under the title Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, Engels developed this view, arguing that perception is a more or less successful action on the world.

Attack on "vulgar materialists"

Another feature of Engels's materialism is its opposition to the theories of those whom he called in Ludwig Feuerbach "vulgarising pedlars," and who, in later Marxist philosophy, are called "vulgar materialists." These were a group of German writers and lecturers, of whom Büchner was one, who argued that materialism was the inevitable consequence of natural science in general and of physiology in particular. Engels objected that they wasted too much time arguing that God does not exist. He also objected that they identified thought with brain processes. Furthermore, they failed to recognize the social, indeed the socialist, implications of materialism. But primarily he objected that theirs was a mechanical materialism. A consideration of this objection brings us to a central feature of Engels's dialectical materialism.

By mechanical materialism Engels meant the type of materialism current in the eighteenth century, when the most highly developed natural science was mechanics. According to this view, all the most complex phenomena of nature, including life and mind, can be reduced to the arrangement and rearrangement of material particles. The most complex beings can be nothing but arrangements of the ultimate simple ones, so that chemical combination, life, mind, and thought are no more than increasingly elaborate applications of mechanical principles. According to Engels, in saying that everything is reducible to the interaction of forces, the vulgar materialists were anachronistically upholding this eighteenth-century view, whereas the natural sciences of the nineteenth century, in developing chemistry and biology, went beyond those of the eighteenth century. In merely mechanical mixtures the original components remain side by side with each other, but in chemical combinations new substances result from the joining of their ingredients. The theory of biological evolution showed that new forms of life have emerged from the simpler forms, not merely more complex ones.

Mechanical materialism itself is a form of what Engels, following Hegel, called the "metaphysical" attitude of thought. Engels's source in Hegel is the phrase "the former metaphysics," by which Hegel referred to the philosophical method used by Christian Wolff and others in the eighteenth century in trying to prove important truths about the world and the human soul by the use of definitions and axioms and allegedly strict deductions. Engels agreed with Hegel that this quasi-mathematical method was inappropriate in philosophy and added that it was inappropriate in science too. In Anti-Dühring Engels said that in the metaphysical mode of thinking, "things and their mental images, ideas" are regarded as isolated and fixed; things either exist or do not exist; and positive and negative exclude one another. But this, he held, is to overlook the changefulness and interconnections of things. Collecting distinct items of information and neglecting the aspect of process helped natural science to get started but was only a preliminary stage toward grasping the world in all its interconnections, processes, beginnings and endings, and contradictions. Mechanical materialism is a fruit of metaphysical thinking. Metaphysical thinking was, in the Hegelian philosophy, and then in the writings of Marx, superseded by dialectical thinking; and this was, in Engels's view, another way of saying that mechanical materialism must be superseded by dialectical materialism. Engels believed that nineteenth-century biology and chemistry had developed along lines that Hegel had foreseen and required. In particular, he referred to passages in Hegel's Logic and Encyclopedia according to which a fuller understanding is gained when the category of mechanism is left behind and replaced by the higher categories of life. In Hegel's "Philosophy of Nature," to which Engels's Dialectics of Nature so often refers, the mechanical forms are succeeded by physical ones that include "chemical process" and electrical phenomena, and these by "the organic." It is this sequence that provided the framework for Engels's philosophy of nature.

Engels on dialectics

Since dialectical thinking is, in Engels's view, opposed to metaphysical thinking, it is thinking that attempts to grasp things in their interrelationships and in the totality to which they belong, in the process of change, of being born and of dying, in their conflicts and contradictions. Furthermore, it is thinking that recognizes the emergence of novelty and that sees such emergences as sudden, even catastrophic. Dialectical thinking, he also held, was becoming more and more apparent as the natural sciences progressed. Scientific discoverers were dialecticians without knowing it.

contradictions in nature

In Anti-Dühring Engels expounded his dialectical philosophy of nature in some detail. Dühring had criticized the Hegelian elements of Marx's thought. In particular he had argued that contradiction is a logical relationship and that it is absurd to suppose that it can be a relationship between things or events in the natural world. In Part I, Chapter 12 of Anti-Dühring Engels endeavored to defend the dialectical theory against this objection. First, he said that the view that there could be no contradictions in nature rests upon the assumption of "the former metaphysics" that things are "static and lifeless." Then he argued that when we consider things in movement and in their effects upon one another, the dialectical view has to be adopted. "Movement itself," he wrote, "is a contradiction: even simple mechanical change of place can only come about through a body at one and the same moment of time being both in one place and in another place, being in one and the same place and also not in it. And the continuous assertion and simultaneous solution of this contradiction is precisely what motion is." Engels also maintained that what is true of mechanical change of place is "even more true of the higher forms of motion of matter, and especially of organic life and its development." Engels had argued in Part I, Chapter 8 that in absorbing and excreting nutriment living matter at each moment is "itself and at the same time something else." Engels also held that there are real contradictions in "higher mathematics," where straight lines and curves may be identical. (He probably had in mind Section 119 of Hegel's Encyclopedia. ) Similarly, Engels said that the square root of minus one is not only a contradiction but "a real absurdity."

Engels's claim that movement is in itself contradictory is based on a passage from Hegel's Science of Logic in which it is argued that it is not sufficient, if something is to move, for it to be here-now and then, after that, there-then, for this would merely be for it to be at rest first in the one place and then in the other. For it to move, Hegel concluded, a body must be "here and not here in the same now" and must "be and yet not be in the same here" (Science of Logic, Book II, Sec. 1, Ch. 2, C). Hegel was discussing Zeno, who had argued that since movement is contradictory, what is real cannot move. Hegel in this passage accepted Zeno's arguments that movement is contradictory, but unlike Zeno concluded that since there is movement, movement "is an existing contradiction." Hegel's views on contradiction are difficult to understand and have been interpreted in various ways. If intended to argue that contradictory propositions could both be true, that "both p and not-p, " then he was wrong and so was Engels in following him. For it can be proved that from any pair of contradictory propositions any conclusion we like can be deduced and hence that if contradictories are true, anything can be true. In this logical sense the term contradiction has its appropriate use in thought or discourse, as Dühring had argued. In saying that something both is and is not in the same place at the same time, that it is true both that it is in P at time t and that it is not in P at time t, the whole negating force of the word not is lost. Either, then, Hegel's philosophy has no value or he must have meant by "contradiction" something different from what formal logicians mean by it. It is likely enough that it is the second alternative that is correct. In attacking Dühring, Engels seems to have committed himself to the first alternative. He adopted a speculative, nonempirical thesis, for whereas movement is something that can be observed in natural things and events, contradiction is not observable in them. What Engels did in his argument about contradiction in the nature of things was to provide one of Zeno's paradoxes with a merely verbal, and indeed absurd, "solution."

It appears that Engels's doctrine on this matter is now being reinterpreted or abandoned. This process began with an article on Zeno's paradoxes by the famous Polish logician Casimir Ajdukiewicz. When this article appeared in Poland in 1948, dialectical materialists were forced to take account of his arguments. In order to do so they granted that "contradiction" does not mean "logical contradiction" when applied to what exists in nature. This view is adopted by the Russian authors of The Fundamentals of Marxism-Leninism: Manual (English translation, Moscow, no date, but later than 1960), who write: "Contradictions due to incorrect thinking should not be confused with objective contradictions existing in objective things. Although the word 'contradiction' is the same in both cases, it means different things" (pp. 99100).

quantity and quality

Another dialectical law of nature that Engels made much of in his Anti-Dühring is that according to which certain of the changes in nature take place suddenly and abruptly rather than by gradual accretion. The simplest instances of this sort of change are the changes of water into ice as its temperature is lowered to the freezing point and into steam as its temperature is raised to the boiling point. The ice and steam do not come into existence gradually and pari passu with the gradual lowering and raising of the temperature, but appear all at once as soon as the freezing or boiling point has been reached. Other examples of the principle were given by Engels: the sudden transformation of one chemical substance into another in the course of chemical combination; the melting points of metals; the transformation of mechanical motion into heat; the necessity for a sum of money to exceed a certain amount before it can become capital; the fact, reported by Napoleon, that whereas two Mamelukes were more than a match for three Frenchmen, a thousand Frenchmen were more than a match for fifteen hundred Mamelukes. One very general idea in all this is that gradual alterations in the quantity of something are not necessarily accompanied by a merely gradual alteration in its characteristics. Apart from this, Engels had in mind the evolutionary scheme of development from simpler forms of matter, like gases, to more distinctive and varied forms, like the many kinds of solids, plants, and animals. This development is not a mere rearrangement of otherwise unchanging particles or elements but is the emergence of new features out of the old, even though the later qualities could not have emerged unless the earlier and simpler ones had first existed. The emerged qualities, however, are not reducible to those from which they have emerged. The point at which changes in a single quality transform it into a new one Engels called a "nodal line." He also said that there is a "leap" from one quality to another.

Once again Engels was following Hegel very closely. The account in Anti-Dühring is based upon Sec. 108 of the Encyclopedia and Book I, Division 3, Chapter 2, B of the Science of Logic, where Hegel discussed the category of "measure." In these passages Hegel tried to show the part played by proportion in the constitution of things. He gave the examples of water turning, at critical points or nodal lines, into ice or steam, and of chemical combinations and constant proportions, which Engels and Marx repeated later. He also instanced birth and death, the acquisition of new properties by numbers as the series of natural numbers develops, and the acquisition of new features by the notes of a musical scale. He gave a moral example, based on Aristotle, of slight changes that turn virtues into vices, carelessness into crime, and so on. He even gave a political example, borrowed from Baron de Montesquieu, of the relation of a type of constitution to the population of a state. In the Encyclopedia Hegel also referred to the ancient Greek puzzles about the point at which a man becomes bald or at which a number of grains of wheat become a heap. Interesting as these examples are, they are extremely disparate. The grains of wheat example is partly a question of how many grains we shall call a heap, and this is to some extent a matter of decision. The concepts of a heap or of baldness are rather vague. The examples of a series of gradual physical changes succeeded by a total transformation of quality are clearly of interest to Engels because of the analogy to revolutionary social change by contrast with gradual alteration. Undoubtedly the social examples had impressed Hegel, who had called attention to the gradual steps that lead up to an explosive revolutionary break in the Preface to the Phenomenology of Mind, where he wrote: "This gradual disintegration which did not alter the general look and aspect of the whole is interrupted by the sunrise which, in a single flash, brings to view the form and structure of the new world."

In itself, whether there are or are not nodal lines and constant proportions in the physical world would seem to have no logical connection with the way in which the social order changes, unless, indeed, it is held that human society really is, or is reducible to, physical eventsand this is in conflict with Engels's general rejection of reductive materialism. If, then, this law is not an expression of a view that is inconsistent with Engel's main view, it would seem to serve an almost animistic purpose. Sudden revolutionary change, he seems to be suggesting, is a fundamental character of the universe as a whole, so that when we urge revolution, we have the universe behind us. That the view at any rate serves this purpose may be seen from Joseph Stalin's subsequent impatience with it. When socialism is established, it is natural for the socialist leaders not to wish to think in terms of their own disappearance and of the emergence of still further social revolutions. Hence, Stalin, in his famous article on linguistics, wrote scornfully of "comrades who have an infatuation for explosions."

interpenetration of opposites

In addition to the law of transformation of quantity into quality, Engels mentioned two other laws of dialectics, the law of the interpenetration of opposites and the law of the negation of the negation. The first of these laws was already touched upon in the exposition of the theory of contradictions in nature and of the deficiencies of the metaphysical point of view. Although Engels mentioned it in the Dialectics of Nature, he did not discuss it as such, and in Anti-Dühring his emphasis was on the other two laws, to each of which he devoted a chapter. The law of the interpenetration of opposites (which was later called the law of the unity and struggle of opposites) seems to have been intended to provide an explanation of why there is any change or development at all. An idea behind it is that in the absence of all tension everything would remain exactly as it is, since there would be nothing to provoke any change. Change takes place because the world does not consist of isolated, self-sufficient, independent particulars, but of opposing forces overcoming or being overcome. Contradiction, or opposition, is in this view the motive force both of natural and of human history.

negation of the negation

The law of the negation of the negation was more specifically emphasized by Engels. He was able to quote from a passage in Marx's Capital in which it is said that when, as a result of competition between capitalists, the few remaining giant capitalist enterprises find themselves confronted by a poverty-stricken proletariat, the latter will rise and expropriate the former, the expropriators will be expropriated. "Capitalist production," wrote Marx, "begets, with the inexorability of a Law of Nature, its own negation. It is the negation of the negation." According to Engels in Anti-Dühring, the law of the negation of the negation is "an extremely generaland for this reason extremely comprehensive and importantlaw of development of nature, history and thought, a law which holds good in the animal and plant kingdoms, in geology, in mathematics, in history and in philosophy." The law is illustrated, according to Engels, by every case in which a plant has seeds that germinate and result in the growth of further plants. "But what is the normal life-process of this plant? It grows, flowers, is fertilised and finally once more produces grains of barley, and as soon as these have ripened the stalk dies, is in its turn negated. As a result of this negation of the negation we have once again the original grain of barley, but not as a single unit, but ten, twenty or thirty fold" (Anti-Dühring, p. 152). One idea in this very famous passage is that out of what looks like death and destruction there arises something better and more various. (Engels in fact wrote of "qualitatively better seeds which produce more beautiful flowers.")

In his early book The Poverty of Philosophy (1847) Marx had quoted the Latin phrase mors immortalis, that is, "deathless death," and Engels similarly regarded progress as taking place through continual destruction and amplified renewal. What holds for plants obviously holds for animals. Geology illustrates the law, too, for it describes "a series of negated negations, a series arising from the successive shattering of old and depositing of new rock formations." The same law appears in mathematics. A is negated by A, and "if we negate that negation by multiplying A by A we get A 2, i.e., the original positive magnitude but at a higher degree, raised to its second power" (Anti-Dühring, p. 153). Engels even found the law operating in the history of philosophy. In early philosophy, he held, there is a simple, natural form of materialism according to which matter is the source of everything. This form of materialism was negated by idealism, which rightly showed that mind is not the same as matter, but wrongly held that matter is dependent upon mind. In its turn, idealism is negated by "modern materialism, the negation of the negation," which contains in itself two thousand years of philosophical development. Engels believed that in "modern materialism," that is, dialectical materialism, philosophy as previously understood is destroyed and yet preserved in the positive sciences.

This law, like the law of the transformation of quantity into quality, draws together some extremely disparate types of being. Is it likely, indeed, does it make sense to say, that the same principle is exemplified in a rule for operating on algebraical symbols and in the relationship of natural materialism, idealism, and dialectical materialism? One instance of the law that has given rise to much discussion is that of the grain of barley. What is it that negates what, and what is comprised in the negation of the negation? This problem was discussed by the Russian Marxist G. V. Plekhanov in his The Development of the Monist View of History (1895), in which he defended Engels's view against the criticisms of another Russian, N. K. Mikhailovskii, who had made fun of the idea that, as he put it, "oats grow according to Hegel." In his account of Engels's argument, Mikhailovskii took it that it is the stalk which negates the seed, and Plekhanov accused him of misquotation and asserted that it is the whole plant which does the negating. Plekhanov argued further that Engels's account of this botanical negation of the negation was supported by an authoritative textbook of botany, Philippe Van Tieghem's Traité de botanique (Paris, 1891), which had recently appeared. The whole discussion is entertaining but ludicrous. For the main difficulty about the law of the negation of the negation is that it can be made to fit almost anything by carefully choosing what are to count as the negating terms. The prime interest in the law is that it is intended to give support to the view that human progress is by means of destruction that leads to better things.

engels's philosophical legacy

Engels was deeply interested in the advances of the sciences and believed that as a result of them nineteenth-century materialism had to be very different from earlier types of materialism. But Engels was drawn in two different directions. On the one hand, he sought to establish a naturalistic, scientific view of the world, and this led him in the same direction as the positivists. On the other hand, he was attracted by Hegel's dialectical method and by the romantic dream of a philosophy of nature, and this led him to regard the positivist outlook as thin and unadventurous. Like Marx, he deplored the conservative social tendencies of Auguste Comte and considered Hegel by far the better philosopher. Nevertheless, Engels did adopt one important positivist thesis, the thesis that knowledge of the world can be obtained only by the methods of the special sciences, so that all that can survive of philosophy is logic and the philosophy of the sciences. Thus, at the beginning of Anti-Dühring he wrote: "What still independently survives of all former philosophy is the science of thought and its lawsformal logic and dialectics. Everything else is merged in the positive science of nature and history." It should be noted that Engels here used the very adjective "positive" that had been formerly used by Comte de Saint-Simon and Comte. Although the positivists said nothing of "dialectics," Engels's point of approach from Hegelianism to positivism was his claim that the positive sciences make use of the dialectical method. But Engels, as we have seen, searched the sciences for examples of the dialectic and so applied his terms that he could not fail to find them there. This association of a positivist view of philosophy with what positivists would describe as a "metaphysical" view of the sciences was to remain a permanent feature of dialectical materialism.

Engels also bequeathed a problem about the nature of logic. Was formal logic disproved or rendered nugatory by the dialectical logic that was coming to fruition in the nineteenth century? In holding that there are existent contradictions Engels seemed willing to go against formal logic, but he also thought that formal logic would remain as a part of philosophy alongside dialectics. His position was complicated by the fact that in Dialectics of Nature he criticized formal logic as being "metaphysical" in the Hegelian sense already considered. As a result, controversy among exponents of dialectical materialism about the status of formal logicby which they generally mean traditional Aristotelian logichas been constantly renewed.

Lenin's Contributions

Lenin's great political achievements, as well as his deep philosophical interest, secured a respectful acceptance for his own philosophical views. And there is some appropriateness in the fact that Lenin's name, rather than Engels's, accompanies that of Marx in the name of the whole doctrine of Marxism-Leninism, since Lenin absorbed and reemphasized Engels's views before superseding him as a founding father.

Lenin's main contributions to dialectical materialism are the doctrine of partiinost ("party spirit" or "partisanship"), his elaborations of the Marxist theory of knowledge and of matter, and his renewed emphasis upon dialectics.


Lenin briefly formulated the doctrine of partiinost as early as 1895, in the course of a controversy with the nonorthodox Marxist reformer Peter B. Struve, who had said that philosophical views were not a matter of controversy between parties but could be shared by members of opposing parties. Lenin wrote that partiinost is included in materialism and that no genuine adherent of materialism could remain uncommitted to the proletarian cause. In this particular context Lenin seems to have been thinking primarily of historical materialism; it is clear from his later writings, however, that he thought that the Marxist should never approach philosophical theories with detachment but should adopt or reject them in the light of their effects on the attainment of socialism. There are several points to be noted in Lenin's view. In the first place he held that dialectical materialism is not merely a theory but a form of action for the establishment of socialism. Thus, a dialectical materialist is necessarily a socialist, and his view of the world is inseparable from his efforts to promote the proletarian cause. In the second place, Lenin held that a socialist intellectual cannot be indifferent to philosophical matters. He is not a complete socialist unless he is a materialist, and a materialist of the right kind. Hence, the leaders of the socialist movement must always be on the alert to protect its doctrines against contamination by philosophical idealism. (This last is a doctrine that Stalin strictly enforced.) A fourth point on which Lenin laid great stress is that idealism is fundamentally supernaturalistic, however tenuous the connection between certain forms of it and religion may appear to be on the surface. In attacking idealism, wherever and however it appears in the socialist literature, what is really being attacked is religion and the antisocialist class forces that uphold it.

The doctrine of partiinost derives from Marx's and Engels's theory of ideologies. Ideologies, in their view, are systems of ideas whose function is to defend and to justify the class interests of those who believe in them and teach them, and philosophical systems are ideologies in this sense. Bourgeois ideologies serve to promote bourgeois interests, and the way to criticize them is not primarily by intellectual refutationthis will have little or no effect as long as bourgeois class interests remainbut by unmasking the motives behind them. This view is supported by the Marxist doctrine of the unity of theory and practice. In writing a philosophical book a man is taking part in the social struggle, and in a society divided into classes he is of necessity promoting or endeavoring to promote some class attitude. Lenin considered that Marxists, who understand what is going on in the ideological sphere, should do deliberately and consciously what is so often done unknowingly. This attitude was powerfully expressed in his Materialism and Empirio-Criticism (1909). Lenin thought that certain members of the Russian Social Democratic party were spreading what were essentially idealist philosophical views, and he set out to put them right. These Marxists (false Marxists, as Lenin thought) were adopting, under the title of empiriocriticism, the phenomenalist theories of Ernst Mach and Richard Avenarius. In doing so, according to Lenin, they were adopting a cryptoidealist philosophy that could weaken the Marxist movement by dissipating its materialism. "Marx and Engels," wrote Lenin, "were partisans in philosophy from start to finish; they were able to detect the deviations from materialism and concessions to idealism and fideism in each and every 'new tendency'" (p. 352). Thus, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism was largely a diatribe intended to crush a view held to be dangerous to the party.

knowledge and matter

Lenin's Materialism and Empirio-Criticism is not only a partisan polemic but also the book in which Lenin expounded his views about knowledge and the nature of matter. It was pointed out above that some Russian social democrats had taken up ideas from the writings of Mach and Avenarius. Mach and Avenarius had tried to put forward as consistently empiricist a view as possible. Mach sought to eliminate from physics all notions that were not capable of direct or indirect verification in sense experience, and Avenarius sought for the terms in which the simplest and most economical explanations can be given. They both concluded that fundamentally the statements of science are statements of what people do experience or will experience and that scientific laws state how such experiences are correlated with one another. To the most elementary of these experiences Mach gave the name "sensations," and empiriocriticism amounted to phenomenalism, the view that material things are actual or possible sensations. Mach's theory of scientific knowledge is not unlike that of the idealist philosopher George Berkeley, who also sought to eliminate from the body of scientific knowledge any conceptions that could not be referred to sensations, or "ideas" (as he called sensations). Mach recognized the similarity between his view of science and that of Berkeley but pointed out that his view differed from Berkeley's in that he did not hold, as Berkeley did, that sensations were produced by God.

Lenin made the most of the fact that Mach's phenomenalist theory had affinities with that of Berkeley. Berkeley, Lenin said, was honest about his religious aims, whereas "in our time these very same thoughts on the 'economical' elimination of 'matter' from philosophy are enveloped in a much more artful form." Lenin objected that these phenomenalistic views run counter to our everyday practice, in which we come across material things and act upon them. We might call this the argument from common sense. He also objected that the theory that the material world is an orderly correlation of sensations is incompatible with the well-established scientific theory that there was once a time when matter existed but beings capable of having sensations did not. Berkeley, if he had known of this argument, could have countered it by saying that God could somehow have experienced the material world. If Mach had taken this course, Lenin claimed, he would have revealed his idealism.

Having rejected idealism and phenomenalism, Lenin had to give his own account of the material world and of our knowledge of it. He adopted Engels's theory that in perception material objects are "reflected" in the percipient and produce "copies" there. From this it would seem that the material world is much as we see and hear it to be, and Lenin seems to have emphasized this. Plekhanov, following Herrmann von Helmholtz, had argued that sensations are not exact copies of objects outside us but that they possess the same structure and might more accurately be termed "symbols" or "hieroglyphs." Lenin claimed, however, that Helmholtz's view undermines its materialist basis, "for signs or symbols may quite possibly indicate imaginary objects, and everybody is familiar with the existence of such signs and symbols" (p. 239). Lenin did not see that a similar objection applies to "copies" or "reflections" as well, for unless we have independent knowledge of that from which the copy is made, we cannot know that it is a copy. Furthermore, Lenin held (Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, Ch. 5, Sec. 7) both that sensations copy what is in the physical world and that what is in the physical world is shown by science to be very different from what it appears to be. Thus, he wrote that sensations of red reflect "ether vibrations" of one frequency and sensations of blue, "ether vibrations" of another frequency, but he did not say how sensations can copy or be like the vibrations. Elsewhere he said that it is "beyond doubt that an image cannot wholly resemble the model" and went on to say that "the image inevitably and of necessity implies the objective reality of what it 'images'" (p. 240). By putting "images" in quotation marks, he seems to have been denying its literal force, and by saying that the images "cannot wholly resemble the model," he raised doubts about what it was he really meant to assert.

The basic thing that Lenin wanted to say about the nature of matter was that it exists objectively and independently; therefore, he actually defined matter as "that which, acting upon our sense-organs, produces sensations." This would apply to Berkeley's God as well as to material objects. Still, Lenin called this his "philosophical" account of matter, contrasting it with the "scientific" conception of matter, which changes as scientific knowledge advances. In Lenin's view, the philosophical conception of matter remains unaffected as the scientific view of it changes from atomist theories to theories of electromagnetism. In Materialism and Empirio-Criticism Lenin argued, probably correctly, that the electromagnetic theory of matter is no less materialistic than atomic theories. Indeed, he held that it is in closer accord with dialectical materialism. "Modern physics is in travail," he wrote, "it is giving birth to dialectical materialism" (pp. 323324). Like Engels, he was attracted to theories of matter that "dissolve" the rigid substances and hard atoms of the older views. He believed that such theories were substituting dialectical concepts for metaphysical and mechanistic ones.


In 1894, in What the "Friends of the People" Are, Lenin quoted approvingly from Engels's Anti-Dühring. In Materialism and Empirio-Criticism he frequently referred to dialectics, without, however, making it the center of his discussion. But while he was in exile in Switzerland during World War I, he renewed his study of philosophy, particularly of its dialectical aspects. His Philosophical Notebooks (first published in 1933) show the wide extent of his reading during those years, particularly his detailed study of Hegel's Science of Logic, in which he noted some germs of historical materialism. Lenin's reading of this book led him to conclude that it was not so much opposed to materialist modes of thought as had previously been supposed. On the one hand, Lenin approved of the Marxist commonplace that Hegel's system is materialism turned upside down. On the other hand he wrote that in the final chapter of the Science of Logic, on the Absolute Idea, there is scarcely a mention of God and that "it contains almost nothing that is specifically idealism, but has for its main subject the dialectical method" (Collected Works, Moscow, 1961, Vol. 38, p. 234). It is apparent from Lenin's notes that his respect for the Science of Logic increased as he read it. Not only did he conclude that it transcended idealism but also that idealism itself has virtues. Two notes in particular may be referred to. Among his comments on Hegel's Lectures on the History of Philosophy he said: "Intelligent idealism is closer to intelligent materialism than stupid materialism" (p. 276). And at the end of a short paper titled "On the Question of Dialectics," written in 1915, he wrote that idealism "is a sterile flower undoubtedly, but a sterile flower that grows on the living tree of living, fertile, genuine, powerful, omnipotent, objective, absolute human knowledge" (Philosophical Notebooks, p. 363). Many of Lenin's jottings in his Notebooks are of this character, in marked contrast to the rancorous anti-idealism of Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, in which any approach toward idealism is regarded as treachery. Perhaps it is of significance that the one thesis common to Berkeley and Lenin is the thesis that nothing is substantial that is not active.

Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-Tung)

Mao Zedong's writings on dialectical materialism are referred to here mainly because of the political eminence of their author. Apart from his poems, his writings are mostly on political subjects, and his chief excursions into philosophy are two short articles written in 1937, "On Practice" and "On Contradiction." It has been suggested that Mao has introduced an empiricist element into dialectical materialism, but this is not borne out by a study of these two writings. In the first, it is true, Mao stated that knowledge begins with sense perception in practical contexts, passes on to rational knowledge, which enables the world to be "molded" for human purposes, and then leads to more rational knowledge at a higher level. It is not clear from the article whether the author was thinking of induction or of the testing of hypotheses or of both. But it is clear that, in Mao's view, in passing to this higher level "a leap" is made. In thus utilizing the law of the transformation of quantity into quality Mao was asserting that certain sorts of rational knowledge are different in kind from sense knowledge, and this can hardly be described as empiricism.

In "On Contradiction" Mao Zedong argued that in a contradiction each contradictory aspect "finds the presupposition of its existence in the other aspect and both aspects co-exist in one entity." As examples of this he mentioned life and death, above and below, misfortune and good fortune, landlords and tenant-peasants, bourgeoisie and proletariat, imperialists and colonies. He also argued that "each of the two contradictory aspects, according to given conditions tends to transform itself into the other," and as examples of this he cited the revolutionary proletariat becoming the rulers instead of the ruled, peace and war, landlords becoming landless tenants and landless tenants becoming smallholders.

It is easy to see the incongruities in both sets of examples. The opposition between life and death, for instance, is different from those between above and below and misfortune and good fortune, for there is nothing intermediate between life and death, whereas between above and below there is the relation of being at the same level and between good and bad fortune there is the condition of having neither the one nor the other. As to the second set of examples, the transformation of revolutionaries into rulers is not a logical transformation, but something that sometimes happens and sometimes does not. The example of peace and war is trivial. Mao wrote: "War and peace transform themselves into each other. War is transformed into peace; for example, the First World War was transformed into the postwar peace. Why? Because in a class society such contradictory things as war and peace are characterised by identity under certain conditions." We know, of course, that wars end and that peace is often followed by war, but nothing is added to this by saying that a contradictory aspect transforms itself into its opposite, as if peace were one entity and war another. These writings of Mao Zedong's are, in fact, mainly concerned with immediate practical issues and contribute little to the philosophy from which they derive. It was in Soviet Russia that dialectical materialism was most fully elaborated after Lenin died.

See also Aristotle; Avenarius, Richard; Berkeley, George; Blake, William; Communism; Comte, Auguste; Descartes, René; Dühring, Eugen Karl; Engels, Friedrich; Faraday, Michael; Feuerbach, Ludwig Andreas; Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Helmholtz, Hermann Ludwig von; Historical Materialism; Idealism; Infinity in Mathematics and Logic; Lenin, Vladimir Il'ich; Locke, John; Logical Paradoxes; Mach, Ernst; Marx, Karl; Marxist Philosophy; Materialism; Matter; Mikhailovskii, Nikolai Konstantinovich; Negation; Newton, Isaac; Phenomenalism; Plekhanov, Georgii Valentinovich; Saint-Simon, Claude-Henri de Rouvroy, Comte de; Schelling, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von; Socialism; Thomas Aquinas, St.; Wolff, Christian; Zeno of Elea.


marxist works


"Oekonomischephilosophische Manuskripte." In Marx-Engels Gesamtausgabe, edited by D. Riazanov and V. Adoratski. Berlin, 19271932. Division I, Vol. III. Translated by Martin Milligan as Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. Moscow and London, 1959.

"Theses on Feuerbach," appended to The German Ideology. Edited by R. Pascal. London, 1938.

Misère de la philosophie. Brussels and Paris, 1847. Translated by H. Quelch as The Poverty of Philosophy. Chicago, 1910.

Marx and Engels

Die heilige Familie. Frankfurt, 1845. Translated as The Holy Family. Moscow and London, 1956.

Die deutsche Ideologie. Edited by V. Adoratski. Vienna, 1932. Translated as The German Ideology, edited by R. Pascal. London, 1964.


Herr Eugen Dührings Umwälzung der Wissenschaft. Leipzig, 1878. Translated by E. Burns as Herr Eugen Dühring's Revolution in Science. London, 1934.

Die Entwicklung des Sozialismus von der Utopie zur Wissenschaft. Zürich, 1883. Translated by E. Aveling as Socialism: Utopian and Scientific. London, 1892.

Ludwig Feuerbach und der Ausgang der klassischen deutschen Philosophie. Stuttgart, 1888. Translated as Ludwig Feuerbach and the Outcome of Classical German Philosophy. London, 1935.

Dialektika Prirody. Moscow, 1925. Translated as Dialectics of Nature, with an introduction by G. B. S. Haldane. London, 1940; new translation, London, 1954.


Selected Philosophical Works. Moscow and London, 1961. Vol. I.

K Voprosu o Razvitii Monisticheskago Vzglyada na Istoriyu. St. Petersburg, 1895. Translated by Andrew Rothstein as In Defense of Materialism: The Development of the Monist View of History. London, 1947.


Materializm i Empiriokrititsizm. Moscow, 1908. Translated by A. Fineberg as Materialism and Empirio-Criticism. Moscow and London, 1948.

"Karl Marx." In his Collected Works. Moscow and London, 1960. Vol. 21, 1964.

Filosofskie Tetradi. Moscow, 1933. Translated as Philosophical Notebooks, in his Collected Works. Moscow and London, 1960. Vol. 38, 1962.


Cornforth, Maurice. Dialectical Materialism, 3 vols. London, 1954.

Kedrov, B. M. Classification of Sciences. Book I: Engels, His Predecessors. Moscow, 1961.

Stalin, Joseph. Dialectical and Historical Materialism. First published as Chapter 4 of Stalin's History of the Communist Party of the USSR. Moscow, 1939.

works by non-marxists

Acton, H. B. The Illusion of the Epoch: Marxism-Leninism as a Philosophical Creed. London, 1955.

Acton, H. B. "Karl Marx's Materialism." Revue internationale de philosophie nos. 4546 (1958): 265277.

Bochenski, J. M. Der sowjetrussische dialektische Materialismus (Diamat). Bern and Munich, 1950. Translated by Nicolas Sollohub as Soviet Russian Dialectical Materialism. Dordrecht, Netherlands, 1963.

Hook, Sidney. Reason, Social Myths, and Democracy. New York: John Day, 1950. Contains an excellent discussion of Engels's dialectical laws.

Joravsky, David. Soviet Marxism and Natural Science. London, 1961. Important on "mechanism" and the relation of dialectical materialism to positivism.

Jordan, Z. A. Philosophy and Ideology. The Development of Philosophy and Marxism-Leninism in Poland since the Second World War. Dordrecht, Netherlands, 1963.

Paul, G. A. "Lenin's Theory of Perception." Analysis 5 (1938): 6573.

Wetter, Gustav. Der dialektische Materialismus: seine Geschichte und seine Systeme in der Sowjetunion. Vienna and Freiburg, 1953. Translated by Peter Heath from the fourth German edition as Dialectical Materialism. A Historical and Systematic Survey of Philosophy in the Soviet Union. London, 1958. Discusses Marx, Engels, Plekhanov, Lenin, and later Soviet writers.

H. B. Acton (1967)

Materialism, Dialectical

views updated May 23 2018

Materialism, Dialectical


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


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

Dialectical Materialism

views updated Jun 27 2018


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


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.

dialectical materialism

views updated May 09 2018

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.

materialism, dialectical

views updated May 14 2018

materialism, dialectical See DIALECTIC.