Marxist Dialectical and Historical Materialism

On this blog, I have attempted to explain several core concepts of Marxist theory. The concept we’re looking at today is the philosophical core of Marxism, dialectical materialism.

At a very basic level, dialectical materialism (or diamat) is a way of understanding reality through the material world. As one might expect, it is the combination of dialectics and materialism. I will attempt to define and analyze each of these in turn.

Dialectics is a method of philosophical reasoning which aims to understand things as they exist concretely. It accounts for the movement and change of things, examining their contradictory sides in concert with one another.

There are three components of dialectics within Marxism. They are the law of the unity and conflict of opposites, the law of the passage of quantitative changes into qualitative changes, and the law of the negation of the negation.

The law of the unity and conflict of opposites, also called the law of the interpenetration of opposites, refers to the idea that there is no perfectly sharp division between opposite sides. There are borderline cases and contradictions between opposites. In physics, for example, changes in either the electrical field or the magnetic field will cause the other to change.

The next law is concerned with quality and quantity. A quality is a property that cannot be measured in numbers and does not come in degrees, such as being at war or unemployed. A quantity is a property that can be measured in numbers, such as hourly wage or rate of profit. Change of quantity usually goes through intermediate stages, but change of quality can happen without going through an intermediate stage. The general principle is that if a quantitative change occurs long enough, a qualitative change will occur. One example is the heating of water. The change in the temperature of water is quantitative, but the change from not-boiling to boiling is qualitative.

The last of these laws refers to Hegel’s idea that the thesis generates its negation in the antithesis. The synthesis is the resolution of the tension between the thesis and the antithesis. These laws have their roots in Ancient Greek philosophical thought, as well as ancient Chinese and sub-Saharan African philosophies. There is unity of dialectical thought across all philosophy, not just the west. It is worth noting that Hegel himself never used these three terms, they were simply used to describe his ideas later.

Dialecticians oppose the formal mode of thought which operates with a fixed definition of things according to their attributes. Let’s take the example of fish. The formal understanding of fish would be something like “a fish is an animal which lives in water and has no legs.” A more essential understanding, however, is dialectical in nature. Some animals living in water are not fish, and some fish have legs. To explain the nature of a fish, we must take the whole interconnected process of what makes a fish. That is, we must understand that a fish came from something and is evolving into something else. Only when we consider these two forms (and their contradictions) can we understand what a fish really is.

Dialecticians seek to go beyond the appearance of something and understand its  essence. Within formal thought, there is little if any difference between the form of a thing and the essence of a thing. A fish appears as something with no legs which lives in water, so that must be what a fish is. However, dialecticians study the existence of contradictions between form and content. A good example of this would be parliamentary democracy in capitalist societies. In form it is a system which allows the masses of people to determine the structure of society, but in content it is a way for the capitalist class to  monopolize this process. Democracy in form, dictatorship in content.

Dialecticians understand that there can be contradictions in the essence of things as well. Formal thought dictates that light must be either a wave or a particle, but the truth is that light can be either or both. Light acts dialectically.

In other words, dialecticians see the truth as the whole picture. Each understanding or aspect of this picture is one-sided and incomplete. Dialecticians seek to understand things by synthesizing the different aspects and looking at their contradictions.

Now let’s look at materialism. Thankfully, this is a much simpler concept than dialectics. It is  a mode of thought which stands in opposition to the notion that an idea can determine the world. For Marx and Engels, thoughts were not passive, independent reflections of the material world. Thoughts were the product of human labor, and contradictions within them had their roots in the contradictions of human society. This meant that dialectical materialism was not something that had been imposed from the outside. It could not be discovered merely by study or reason. It was a product of human labor changing the world; people changed and developed its form. It could only be understood by the struggle to overcome these contradictions, not merely in thought, but in practice. It sees the material world as primary. Our ideas are in large part determined by the way in which goods and services are coordinated within society. Being, matter, and nature are the base forces of society. Thinking, mind, and spirit are secondary to and derived from these. This concept serves to counteract idealism, which states that historical events are brought into existence when people act on their ideas. This is a flawed perspective because it does not explain how or why the idea came to exist in the first place. Through an analysis of productive forces, materialism does answer these questions.

Since dialectical materialism is concerned with practice, Marx and Engels were very interested in applying the philosophy to historical and political reality. The result of this process is known as historical materialism. Engels gave the best summary of this approach to history in his speech at Marx’s graveside. As he put it, “Marx discovered the law of human history. The simple fact, hitherto concealed by an overgrowth of ideology, that mankind must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing, before it can pursue politics, science, art, religion and so on. That therefore the production of the immediate material means of subsistence, and consequently the degree of economic development attained by a given people or during a given epoch, form the foundation upon which the state institution, the legal conception, art, and even the ideas on religion of the people concerned, have been evolved.”

This is the basis of what Marx and Engels called the materialist conception of history, which later came to be called historical materialism. In order to survive, human beings must first meet their material needs. The way in which we go about meeting those needs profoundly shapes our society and the individuals in it. To take a contemporary example, the attitudes and beliefs of people who grow up in rural areas and engage in agricultural production are typically very different to those of the people who perform industrial labor in heavily populated urban areas.

In his speech, Engels calls the way production is organized and the level of economic development that a society has achieved the foundation on which other ideas and institutions rest. Elsewhere, he and Marx sometimes call it the base that supports a legal, political, and cultural superstructure. In using this metaphor of base and superstructure, Marx and Engels are not proposing that influence only goes in one direction. Legal, political, and even religion ideas can affect the way production is organized, and vise versa. These two things are constantly interacting with and shaping one another, in a dialectical relationship.

Over the long run, however, it is the productive base of a society that has the most profound effect on how that society develops. One reason why this is true is because human societies are and have been divided into classes. Those who are at the top of society will obviously use their considerable resources and influence to shape ideas and institutions in ways that benefit them. That is why Marx and Engels say in The German Ideology that “the ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class.” The power and wealth of the ruling class rests on their control of the economy. This is one important way in which the economic base and the material interests to which it gives rise determine the superstructure.

If the base in some way explains the superstructure, then we should expect fundamental changes in society as a whole to be due to changes in the base. Perhaps Marx’s most famous substantiation of this claim is contained in the preface to his 1859 book A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. Here, he writes “in the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations which are independent of their will. Namely, relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of their relations of production constitute the economic structure of society, the real foundation on which arises a legal and political superstructure….It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.’

Marx uses a lot of technical terms in this passage, but the two most important ones are the forces of production (productive forces) and the relations of production. The forces of production are all the elements needed to engage in the labor process. In other words, the things humans use to act upon and change the natural world in any particular historical period. These things will obviously change depending on a variety of factors, but there are two components needed for any labor process. Human labor power and means of production.

Human labor power includes not just the efforts of individuals, but what Marx calls modes of cooperation. These are the ways in which individuals work together to produce something. The social relations of slavery entailed slaves working together with their own tools, whereas the modern factory sees a number of workers operating large machines, often in concert with one another. These are two fundamentally different modes of cooperation.

The labor process also requires means of production. Land, raw materials, and the technology created to use them. These are things like factories, farms, machinery, and offices. Essentially anything one would need to do work.

The labor process by itself, however, does not tell us what kind of society we have. As Marx put in it Capital Volume One, “the taste of porridge does not tell us who brewed the oats, and the production process we have presented does not reveal the conditions under which it takes place, whether it is happening under the slaveowners brutal lash or the anxious eye of the capitalist.”

This fact brings us to the relations of production. These have to do not with the inner workings of the labor process, but with who controls the labor process and its output. As we have already noted, human societies have been divided into antagonistic classes for the past several thousand years. The class structure of any given society might be quite complicated, but there are generally two central classes: those who produce for  not only for their own immediate needs but also produce a surplus, and those who control this surplus. In slave societies, slaves produced the surplus, which was then controlled by the slave owners. In feudal societies, peasants produced the surplus, which was controlled by lords. In capitalist societies, workers create surplus value, which is then controlled by capitalists.

It is these relations of production that define society. In the earliest human societies, there was little surplus produced. When there was a surplus, it was owned in common. These were primitive communist societies with no class differentiations. Since then, we have seen a variety of class societies emerge, including slave, feudal, and capitalist societies. Each one is distinguished by the specific way in which the rulers extract a surplus from the direct producers. The sum of all of a society’s relations of production constitutes what Marx calls its economic structure, or base. It is on this that the legal, political, and cultural superstructure rest.

There are two more things to say about the relations of production. First, in class societies, relations of production involve not just the specific relations of the ruling class to the producing class, but also the relationship of the members of the ruling class to each other. Members of the ruling class in one country want bigger market shares than members of the ruling class in another country, so their relationships are often antagonistic. However, different ruling classes may unite to combat a particular crisis or moment of intense class struggle. Fourteen capitalist nations were able to set aside their differences to invade the USSR and attempt to crush socialism, for example.

Second, there is an important relationship between the level of development of the forces of production and the specific relations of production that exist within a society. Marx says that the relations of production correspond to, or are appropriate to, specific stages in the development of the forces of production. What this means at a minimum is that not every set of relations of production is compatible with a given level of development in the forces of production. Modern industrial production is not compatible with chattel slavery, except at the margins. This is because it requires a workforce with the high level of technical knowledge necessary to operate complex machinery. This would be impossible in a chattel slave society. There, slaves must be kept ignorant so that they do not revolt against their masters. This is why it was illegal for slaves to learn to read in the American South prior to the civil war. This is also because a modern industrial workforce must be highly flexible, able to be shifted from one sector to another relatively quickly, or laid off when the economy slows down. This would not be possible if the ruling class owned the producers, because they could not be gotten rid of so easily.

Similarly, Marx argues that communism is impossible in a society in which the development of the forces of production is not high enough to produce relative abundance. Without a high level of abundance, scarcity cannot be abolished. The result would be, as Marx and Engels put it it in The German Ideology, that “want is merely made general, and with destitution, the struggle for necessities and all the old filthy business would necessarily be reproduced.” This is one reason why the transition period of socialism is necessary. It is in this period that the abundance necessary for communism is reached.

The forces of production, therefore, put limits on what relations of production are possible. Yet this is not all. As we will see, the forces of production can significantly affect the ways in which the forces of production develop. These, too, interact with and alter one another dialectically.

At any given point, the combination of the forces of production and the relations of production in a society make up what Marx called the mode of production in that society.

What is the point of all this terminology? The distinctions Marx draws are crucial for understanding the process of historical change. That is, how one economic structure, one network of social relations governing material production shift to a different structure. Put another way, how can a dominant class, be it feudal lords or modern capitalists, ever be removed from power given the vast amount of resources at its disposal? The ruling class not only has society’s ruling ideas in its favor, it also has control of the state and the armed men that come along with that.

Marx addresses this question of basic change in the above-mentioned 1859 preface. He writes “at a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production. From forms of development of the productive forces, these relations turn into their fetters. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.”

At a certain point, the development of the forces of production brings them into conflict with the existing relations of production. Relations that had previously been conducive to the development of the forces now hold them back. This results in a social crisis that weakens the power of the ruling class, and eventually results in its overthrow or transformation. This is how we went from slave society to capitalist society: the contradictions between the forces of production and the relations of production necessitated that this change take place.

According to this theory of historical materialism, the primitive communism of tribal societies represented the original thesis of human development. This in turn generated the antithesis of private ownership and class society (which came about through the development of productive forces). The synthesis of these ideas will be advanced communism, in which the workers own the means of production in an advanced industrial society. This can only emerge after various stages of development, such as slavery, feudalism, capitalism, and socialism.

Many people have interpreted this theory as being deterministic. They argue that, because developments in the forces of production are inevitable, communism must also be inevitable. At some point, the forces of production will develop to such a degree that socialism, and eventually communism, will come about naturally. There is no need, argue the determinists, to fight for socialism or communism, because history dictates that they will happen of their own accord.

But history is not an automatic process. Marx was well aware that there is no inevitability to human history. As he points out in the beginning of The Communist Manifesto, class struggle can culminate either in “a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.” Marx argued that the end of capitalism was inevitable, due to the development of the productive forces. But the end of capitalism is not the same as the beginning of socialism. If we do not actively struggle for socialism, capitalism will result in the destruction of the planet. It is, as Rosa Luxembourg put it, a question of “socialism or barbarism.”

Marx continually emphasized the role of class struggle in history. His most often-quoted line is again in The Communist Manifesto, in which he wrote “the history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggles.” He did not believe that history could be reduced to impersonal economic forces. Rather it was the result of humanity acting, consciously or not, in the class interests dictated by its relationship to the means of production. In 1845, he wrote, “History does nothing. It possesses no immense wealth, wages no battles. It is man, real living man, who does all that, who possesses and fights. History is not, as it were, a person apart, using man as a means to achieve its own aims. History is nothing but the activities of man pursuing those aims.” Marx never denies the importance of human agency.

It follows from this that neither socialism nor communism are inevitable. The end of capitalism is likely inevitable due to the system’s need to progress and develop its forces of production. However, advanced communism will not come about in its own. The working class must first break free from the institutions of repression that capitalist society has created in order to perpetuate itself. This necessitates a violent revolution, ending in the establishment of socialism and the dictatorship of the proletariat.  This is a sudden qualitative change, coming about after a quantitative change in the number of class-conscious proletarians. Notice that this is in keeping with the second law of dialectics, the passage of quantitative change into qualitative change.

Dialectal Materialism has further implications for revolutionaries, beyond that which I have just mentioned. To explain what i mean by this, I would like to introduce a metaphor. Capitalism is seen as being similar to gravity, in the sense that it envelopes our world completely. It does this to such a degree that it is easy for us to forget about it entirely. One can go through an entire day without thinking about how gravity or capitalism operate, but both still hold sway over one’s life.

In fact, the two are seen as so important that attempts to distance oneself from them can result in serious injuries or death. No one would look at a staircase and think they could simply avoid the reality of descending that staircase. If one did believe this, they would in all likelihood break their neck.

By the same token, workers in capitalist societies do not believe that they can simply take home with them that which they produced. To do this would be to risk the threat of job loss or even incarceration.

A consequence of this metaphor, which is propagated nearly every day in all spheres of life, is that capitalism is seen as immutable and eternal. The power of capitalism to structure the social world, like gravity’s pull on everything around us, is so all-encompassing that many people never even become aware of it as a force with its own laws. Other than physicists, few could state Newton’s law of universal gravitation. Other than economists, few could articulate capitalism’s law of surplus value extraction. Capitalism, like gravity, is treated by the masses as simply something that happens, rather than something that can be escaped from or transcended.

Capitalism, of course, is unlike gravity in the sense that it can be transcended. Capitalism is a historically specific social structure, the product of thousands of years of prior human civilizations. It is a product of human activity that emerged out of thousands of years of historical development. Just like the fish, it came after something (feudalism) and comes before something else. With any luck, this will be Socialism.

The Dialectical method is a crucial tool, not only for understanding history, but for revealing the passing and transitory nature of a social system that, most of the time, appears to be a fact: as real and unmovable as the floor at the bottom of the staircase. As I said above, dialects takes as its starting point that the world is in a constant state of change, of motion. It follows from this that capitalism is a product of human activity that arises out of the material world.

If capitalism began as a result of human activity, then it stands to reason that it can be ended by human activity as well. Dialectal Materialism serves to make the working class conscious of its own power and, in so doing, push them towards socialism.
We can see from this that dialectical materialism has direct implications in revolutionary struggle. Dialectical materialism gives us new insight into politics, economics, all the major spheres of life. We can begin to understand, almost literally, what makes the world tick. Only by grasping this philosophy can the proletariat achieve its dream of a society that is free of exploitation.

One thought on “Marxist Dialectical and Historical Materialism

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *