Term coined by German philosopher JOSEF DIETZGEN (1820-1888) and developed by Marx’s successors.
History moved forward as a result of ‘argument’ between different material features of human society.
Dialectical materialism was an ambitious and almost abstract attempt by Karl Marx’s successors to give an account of all human and natural events, and was subsequently largely discarded.
Also see: historical materialism
Tom Bottomore, A Dictionary of Marxist Thought, 2nd edn (Oxford, 1991)
Marx and Engels never used the words “dialectical materialism” in their own writings. The term was coined in 1887 by Joseph Dietzgen, a socialist who corresponded with Marx, during and after the failed 1848 German Revolution. Casual mention of the term “dialectical materialism” is also found in the biography Frederick Engels, by philosopher Karl Kautsky, written in the same year. Marx himself had talked about the “materialist conception of history”, which was later referred to as “historical materialism” by Engels. Engels further explained the “materialist dialectic” in his Dialectics of Nature in 1883. Georgi Plekhanov, the father of Russian Marxism, first used the term “dialectical materialism” in 1891 in his writings on Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Marx. Stalin further delineated and defined dialectical and historical materialism as the world outlook of Marxism–Leninism, and as a method to study society and its history.
Marx and Engels each began their adulthood as Young Hegelians, one of several groups of intellectuals inspired by the philosopher Hegel. Marx’s doctoral thesis, The Difference Between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature, was concerned with the atomism of Epicurus and Democritus, which is considered the foundation of materialist philosophy. Marx was also familiar with Lucretius’s theory of clinamen.
Marx and Engels both concluded that Hegelian philosophy, at least as interpreted by their former colleagues, was too abstract and was being misapplied in attempts to explain the social injustice in recently industrializing countries such as Germany, France, and the United Kingdom, which was alleged in the early 1840s to be a growing concern.
In contrast to the conventional Hegelian dialectic of the day, which emphasized the idealist observation that human experience is dependent on the mind’s perceptions, Marx developed Marxist dialectics, which emphasized the materialist view that the world of the concrete shapes socioeconomic interactions and that those in turn determine sociopolitical reality.
Whereas some Hegelians blamed religious alienation (estrangement from the traditional comforts of religion) for societal ills, Marx and Engels concluded that alienation from economic and political autonomy, coupled with exploitation and poverty, was the real culprit.
In keeping with dialectical ideas, Marx and Engels thus created an alternative theory, not only of why the world is the way it is but also of which actions people should take to make it the way it ought to be. In Theses on Feuerbach (1845), Marx wrote, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.” Dialectical materialism is thus closely related to Marx’s and Engels’s historical materialism (and has sometimes been viewed as synonymous with it). Marx rejected the language of “thesis, antithesis, synthesis”.
Dialectical materialism is an aspect of the broader subject of materialism, which asserts the primacy of the material world: in short, matter precedes thought. Materialism is a realist philosophy of science, which holds that the world is material; that all phenomena in the universe consist of “matter in motion,” wherein all things are interdependent and interconnected and develop according to natural law; that the world exists outside us and independently of our perception of it; that thought is a reflection of the material world in the brain, and that the world is in principle knowable.
Marx criticized classical materialism as another idealist philosophy—idealist because of its transhistorical understanding of material contexts. The Young Hegelian Ludwig Feuerbach had rejected Hegel’s idealistic philosophy and advocated materialism. Despite being strongly influenced by Feuerbach, Marx rejected Feuerbach’s version of materialism (anthropological materialism) as inconsistent. The writings of Engels, especially Anti-Dühring (1878) and Dialectics of Nature (1875–82), were the source of the main doctrines of dialectical materialism.
The concept of dialectical materialism emerges from statements by Marx in the second edition postface to his magnum opus, Das Kapital. There Marx says he intends to use Hegelian dialectics but in revised form. He defends Hegel against those who view him as a “dead dog” and then says, “I openly avowed myself as the pupil of that mighty thinker Hegel.” Marx credits Hegel with “being the first to present [dialectic’s] form of working in a comprehensive and conscious manner”. But he then criticizes Hegel for turning dialectics upside down: “With him it is standing on its head. It must be turned right side up again, if you would discover the rational kernel within the mystical shell.”
Marx’s criticism of Hegel asserts that Hegel’s dialectics go astray by dealing with ideas, with the human mind. Hegel’s dialectic, Marx says, inappropriately concerns “the process of the human brain”; it focuses on ideas. Hegel’s thought is in fact sometimes called dialectical idealism, and Hegel himself is counted among a number of other philosophers known as the German idealists. Marx, on the contrary, believed that dialectics should deal not with the mental world of ideas but with “the material world”, the world of production and other economic activity.
For Marx, human history cannot be fitted into any neat a priori schema. He explicitly rejects the idea of Hegel’s followers that history can be understood as “a person apart, a metaphysical subject of which real human individuals are but the bearers”. To interpret history as though previous social formations have somehow been aiming themselves toward the present state of affairs is “to misunderstand the historical movement by which the successive generations transformed the results acquired by the generations that preceded them”. Marx’s rejection of this sort of teleology was one reason for his enthusiastic (though not entirely uncritical) reception of Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection.
For Marx, dialectics is not a formula for generating predetermined outcomes but is a method for the empirical study of social processes in terms of interrelations, development, and transformation. In his introduction to the Penguin edition of Marx’s Capital, Ernest Mandel writes, “When the dialectical method is applied to the study of economic problems, economic phenomena are not viewed separately from each other, by bits and pieces, but in their inner connection as an integrated totality, structured around, and by, a basic predominant mode of production.”
Marx’s own writings are almost exclusively concerned with understanding human history in terms of systemic processes, based on modes of production (broadly speaking, the ways in which societies are organized to employ their technological powers to interact with their material surroundings). This is called historical materialism. More narrowly, within the framework of this general theory of history, most of Marx’s writing is devoted to an analysis of the specific structure and development of the capitalist economy.
For his part, Engels applies a “dialectical” approach to the natural world in general, arguing that contemporary science is increasingly recognizing the necessity of viewing natural processes in terms of interconnectedness, development, and transformation. Some scholars have doubted that Engels’ “dialectics of nature” is a legitimate extension of Marx’s approach to social processes. Other scholars have argued that despite Marx’s insistence that humans are natural beings in an evolving, mutual relationship with the rest of nature, Marx’s own writings pay inadequate attention to the ways in which human agency is constrained by such factors as biology, geography, and ecology.
Engels postulated three laws of dialectics from his reading of Hegel’s Science of Logic. Engels elucidated these laws as the materialist dialectic in his work Dialectics of Nature:
- The law of the unity and conflict of opposites
- The law of the passage of quantitative changes into qualitative changes
- The law of the negation of the negation
The first law, which originates with the ancient Ionian philosopher Heraclitus, was seen by both Hegel and Vladimir Lenin as the central feature of a dialectical understanding of things:
It is in this dialectic as it is here understood, that is, in the grasping of oppositions in their unity, or of the positive in the negative, that speculative thought consists. It is the most important aspect of dialectic.— Hegel, Science of Logic, § 69, (p. 56 in the Miller edition)
The splitting of a single whole and the cognition of its contradictory parts is the essence (one of the “essentials”, one of the principal, if not the principal, characteristics or features) of dialectics. That is precisely how Hegel, too, puts the matter.— Lenin’s Collected Works: Volume 38, p. 359: On the question of dialectics.
The second law Hegel took from Ancient Greek philosophers, notably the paradox of the heap, and explanation by Aristotle, and it is equated with what scientists call phase transitions. It may be traced to the ancient Ionian philosophers, particularly Anaximenes from whom Aristotle, Hegel, and Engels inherited the concept. For all these authors, one of the main illustrations is the phase transitions of water. There has also been an effort to apply this mechanism to social phenomena, whereby population increases result in changes in social structure. The law of the passage of quantitative changes into qualitative changes can also be applied to the process of social change and class conflict.
The third law, “negation of the negation”, originated with Hegel. Although Hegel coined the term “negation of the negation”, it gained its fame from Marx’s using it in Capital. There Marx wrote this: “The [death] knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators [capitalists] are expropriated. The capitalist mode of appropriation, the result of the capitalist mode of production, produces capitalist private property. This is the first negation [antithesis] of individual private property. [The “first negation”, or antithesis, negates the thesis, which in this instance is feudalism, the economic system that preceded capitalism.] … But capitalist production begets, with the inexorability of a law of Nature, its own negation. It [final communism, the synthesis] is the negation of [the] negation.”
Z. A. Jordan notes, “Engels made constant use of the metaphysical insight that the higher level of existence emerges from and has its roots in the lower; that the higher level constitutes a new order of being with its irreducible laws; and that this process of evolutionary advance is governed by laws of development which reflect basic properties of ‘matter in motion as a whole’.