1940s >> 1947 >> no-515-july-1947

Dialectical Materialism

A correspondent has asked us to define our attitude to Dialectical Materialism. This phrase has become the stock-in-trade of those who try to defend the tortuous policy of that clay-footed giant of the East—Russia—and it has had wished upon it the mystical characteristics of a solvent of all points of view, even the most glaringly contradictory, such as a “socialist’’ country in which wages exist and a privileged few enjoy luxury at the expense of the great majority.


Dialectical Materialism made its appearance in socialist propaganda when Marx borrowed from Hegel the dialectical (evolutionary) method of examining man’s history and works, but he reversed Hegel’s method of approach to the world. To Hegel the world was a reflection of the thought process in man’s head, he was an idealist; to Marx the thought process was a reflection of an actual world process, he was a materialist. Hegel was building his philosophical system at a time when the old static world of Feudalism was being rent by the birth of Capitalism, and accepted ways and ideas were being hurled into a tormented melting pot. The old world was passing, the new world was problematical and struggling into shape; nothing was settled, all was change. Hegel, a product of the times, was impregnated with this idea of universal change and his philosophy expressed it—even though upside down. The confused, contradictory and changing policy of Soviet Russia bewilders its adherents and drives them back to a bastardised Hegelianism with leadership as the absolute concept. Is there a contradiction between principles and policy? No matter, an understanding of dialectics will show that everything is all right in this best of all possible Russian worlds. If the Russian workers are free to control their own destiny but must obey the dictates of the Stalin oligarchy, if the capitalist class is the enemy and yet Russia concludes alliances of love with them, if imperialism is a capitalist method of fleecing and yet the “workers’ republic” fights for world markets and spheres of influence, don’t worry, dialectics explains and solves these contradictions. The more incomprehensible dialectics appears to the ordinary worker the firmer the bonds of leadership are riveted upon them and the higher its self-appointed interpreters climb.


At the time when Marx was preparing and writing his analyses of history and Capitalism the word evolution was not current as an expression covering the process of world development, because, although many thinkers recognised that certain changes occurred in nature and history they had not yet grasped the fact that the process was universal, complementary, and unified. They used the expression “development hypothesis” to describe the growth of one form into another within one particular species; the change from one species into another had not yet been recognised, and was to become part of a larger outlook—the evolutionary one. It is significant from this point of view that the word evolution does not appear anywhere in the Communist Manifesto, the outlook of which is now recognised as evolutionary. Evolution as the expression covering the comprehensive developmental point of view became current with the appearance of Darwin’s “Origin of Species,” in which was proclaimed the theory of organic evolution. This book appeared in 1859, the same year in which Marx’s “Critique of Political Economy” appeared, and by that time Marx had written most of the manuscript that eventually appeared under the title “Capital.” In fact, as far as the writer can remember at the moment, the word evolution does not appear in “Capital,” which was published in 1867, apart from a reference in the preface. Thus most of Marx’s important works were already either published or in manuscript form before the word evolution had become current as the expression of all that is bound up with the process of universal, progressive, and unending change, including the mechanism that accomplishes the changes.


To the advanced thinkers of Marx’s day “dialectical’’ signified the science of the process by which change occurred. Since then “dialectical’’ has been replaced by “evolutionary,” and the older word is largely forgotten by all expect the out-of-date philosophers living among cobwebs, and the advocates of that modern monstrosity, “Russian Communism.” An adroit use of dialectics enables the latter to clothe their conflicting policies with a semblance of conformity to Marxism, which is not even the Lenin brand. Under their influence we have witnessed an attempt, that has become stronger as Bolshevik claims and practice have become more contradictory and confusing, to define dialectical materialism as something more comprehensive than evolution.


Attention must be drawn to the fact that each scientist is, and must be, an evolutionist in his own field of research, and is therefore, to that extent, a materialist. It is only when he leaves this field, particularly when he looks at society and religion, that he is likely to abandon science and enter the realms of phantasy. The reason for this is that in these particular directions the weight of society and tradition is heavier than in others because here a scientific outlook is a danger to the persistence of the existing social arrangements.


What Marx and Engels meant by dialectics was made clear in the latter’s book, “Anti-Duhring,’’ written with the assistance of Marx. In this book Engels says, towards the end of the chapter on dialectics, when referring to the negation of the negation: —

   “If I say that all these processes [growth of a grain of barley to a crop-bearing plant, etc.] constitute negation of the negation, I embrace them all under this one law of progress, and leave the distinctive features of each special process without particular notice. The dialectic is, as a matter of fact, nothing but the science of the universal laws of motion, and evolution in nature, human society and thought.”

He further says of modem materialism:


   “It is in a special sense no philosophy but a single concept of the universe which has to prove and realise itself not in a science of sciences apart, but in actual science.’’

To understand the process of change in any particular department of knowledge you must discover the laws, the uniformity in the apparently haphazard, and this is just what scientists do; they discover the laws in that particular department by applying the evolutionary concept. Evolution does not merely signify that there is perpetual change; that was an old view dating back to antiquity; but that the changes are an unfolding and further development of forces within that which is changing, the direction of the change being determined by the alignment of internal constituents and the impact of external.


Everything is part of an unending world process, no section of which can be isolated except in thought; and even when isolating anything in thought it must still be studied in its connection with other things. World change consists of a combination, dissolution and re-combination of elements in an ascending series; that is to say, an ever, more complicated arrangement of elements. Existence is only a temporary equilibrium of opposing elements, always in motion, that at a certain stage bursts apart and forms a new combination when one element becomes present in greater abundance than another, or the relation between internal quantities changes. In analysing these progressive combinations scientists discover the numerous laws that govern such progressive movement enabling them to foretell, with varying degrees of accuracy, future developments. Absolute accuracy is impossible because the knowledge to foretell is limited by the fact that all the items that go to make up the changing world process are so vast that they are outside the capacity of any individual, group, class or nation. Absolute accuracy would demand the sum of the experience of the human race, past and present, as well as the knowledge of things that have not yet swum into the human orbit But the limited accuracy is sufficient to enable humanity to build ships, aeroplanes, factories, rockets and atom bombs, and the rest.
Now let us glance at two or three interpretations of the laws of Dialectical Materialism by two writers who published short books on the subject—David Guest and Edward Conze.


Guest (“Dialectical Materialism,” Lawrence & Wishart, 1941; edited by T. A. Jackson) quotes the second law of dialectics as follows, and later quotes Lenin’s blessing of the same wording: “The law of unity (interpenetration, identity) of opposites.” Note the word “identity.” Opposites cannot be identical as long as they are opposites, and to say that one cannot exist without the other is not very illuminating because a thing cannot be opposite to nothing; it must be opposite to something that is opposite to it! Marx did not mix unity with identity. Writing of the two poles of the expression of value in the first chapter of “Capital” he says :—


    “The relative form and the equivalent form are two intimately connected, mutually dependent and inseparable elements of the expression of value; but, at the same time, are mutually exclusive, antagonistic extremes—i.e., poles of the same expression.”

That is the essence of the matter; mutually dependent, inseparable, but mutually exclusive. Identity of opposites is just nonsense.


Referring to the inner contradictions and opposite sides in society, Guest makes the following remarks :—


    “Marx found the basis of the class struggle to lie in a contradiction between the methods of production . . . and the existing social relationships. It is this contradiction which during a certain historic period gets expressed in an external antagonism of classes. When this is so . . . one class . . . represents the forces of production seeking to expand, and another class . . . represents those social relations which are hemming in the productive forces.
“But the basic contradiction will continue to exist in classless society, and will cause the progressive development of social relationships as the productive forces themselves develop.” (Page 54.)


The reader may perhaps glimpse in the last few lines the creeping paralysis of Russia! The basic contradiction is the contradiction between the method of production and the existing social relationships and, according to Guest, it will continue to exist under Communism. In his breathless pursuit of contradictions he makes the mistake of thinking that they must always be of the same kind and he has missed the basic contradiction which will be solved for good and all; the contradiction between social production and private ownership which originated in primitive society, developed during succeeding centuries and will be finally solved by Socialism. We will consider this at greater length later and in the meantime see what Engels has to say upon Guest’s point; we quote from “Socialism: Utopian and Scientific“:—


    “But with the taking over by society of the productive forces, the social character of the means of production and of the products will be utilised by the producers with a perfect understanding of its nature . . .      “Active social forces work exactly like natural forces: blindly, forcibly, destructively, so long as we do not understand, and reckon with them. But when once we grasp their action, their direction, their effects, it depends only upon ourselves to subject them more and more to our own will, and by means of them to reach our own ends. And this holds quite especially of the mighty productive forces of to-day.” (Page 78.)
“The whole sphere of the conditions of life which environ man, and which have hitherto ruled man, now comes under the dominion and control of man, who for the first time becomes the real, conscious lord of nature, because he has now become master of his own social organisation. The laws of his own social action, hitherto standing face to face with man as laws of nature foreign to, and dominating him, will then be used with full understanding, and so mastered by him. Man’s own social organisation, hitherto confronting him as a necessity imposed by nature and history, now becomes the result of his own free action. . . .  It is the ascent of man from the kingdom of necessity to the kingdom of freedom.” (Page 82.)

Thus, according to Engels, the basic contradiction will not have the indefinite life attributed to it by Guest.


Now let us take two examples of Conze’s interpretation of Dialectical Materialism (“An Introduction to Dialectical Materialism,” Edward Conze, N.C.L.C., 1936). He is also in a jam over the question of opposites and we refer back to what we have already said on the subject Here is his gem:


   “I know no general reason why opposites always must be united. The study of scientific method is not yet advanced enough to give us proof of this kind.” (Page 35.)


Conze has evidently walked up the wrong street. The human race, in its wisdom, has decided that when two things turn up in a certain relationship to each other they will be called opposites. As long as the human race sticks to this then we can’t have one opposite on its own. Conze is apparently prepared to concede that all the black door handles that have so far turned up have been black, but he does not rule out the possibility that some day a black door handle may appear that is not black!


On another page Conze, with the backing of Freud, gives us this information:—

   “Freud has shown that we can have no feeling of love towards anyone without simultaneously having a more or lees feeling of hatred of the same person, and vice versa. . . . No hatred can exist without containing some love. Love is the regular companion of hatred, even if the quantity of love is sometimes microscopic.” (Page 38.)


This is a peculiar way of looking at the unity of opposites, on the basis of which we can prove anything and get nowhere. Let us see if we can translate it into something more obvious. A wooden stick has two ends; they are the names we give to two opposite parts of the stick, and while the stick exists as a stick the ends exist as separate, antagonistic, mutually dependent parts of it. As long as we remain outside a lunatic asylum the ends will appear to us as two different parts of this piece of wood, and we can’t have even a microscopic bit of one end existing alongside, let alone inside, the other. Of course we can throw the stick in the fire and put the same end to both, but then this is a different end altogether! Let us use language reasonably and for its purpose. Love and hate are two opposite expressions of a common human emotion; they cannot both exist at the same time for the same object but they can alternate, or they can both dwindle down with the dwindling of emotion. Now let us look at love and hatred from the point of view of the development of these two poles of the expression of emotion, and not their temporary equilibrium in an individual who both loves and hates. Human emotion develops until it becomes differentiated into what we call love and hatred; in its early development the distinction is blurred but in the course of time it becomes clearly defined, and it is love and hatred as such and as opposites that Conze is writing about. Love is love and not hate, and in a given situation they are mutually exclusive. Mixing interpenetration with identity seems to be the cause of the confusion. If we pass our finger along the stick we come to a point where it is neither one end nor the other but we never have our finger on a little bit of one end and a large part of the other. What happens is that one end passes into the other.
There is much dross in both of the books to which we have referred but we have not space to discuss them further.


There is a progressive change in nature and thought; an evolution. What does this mean? It means nothing more than a movement from the simple to the complex; an ever more complicated mixture of a comparatively few elements. An example may make this clearer. A modern piece of highly developed mechanism, such as an aeroplane engine, is a mystifying sight to the uninitiated, and yet it is made up of a multitude of simple movements that, taken by themselves, would mystify nobody. The human mind thrives by learning and contriving and thus craves for an ever more complicated life; it is more satisfying, and therefore progressive, to the majority in the long run.


Let us now complete the picture by an illustration of the operation of the laws Marx borrowed from Hegel and applied in his investigations. We will take an example from the evolution of society, as that is our particular concern.


In prehistoric times man lived in small communities, beset by forces of nature he was not yet able to control or adjust himself to, but the simple means of production were commonly owned. These means of production were barely sufficient to enable each member of the community to sustain life and reproduce his kind. In the course of time man multiplied but the means of production multiplied at a greater rate until what was produced was more than sufficient to supply each with the necessaries of life. When this expansion had reached a certain point the idea was born into the mind of men that it was possible for some to live without working if they could persuade or force others to work for them. In order to accomplish this a portion of the means of production that belonged to the community had to be converted into the private possession of some members of the community. An internal struggle then began that ended in the establishment of private ownership in the means of production. Since then a constant struggle has been carried on during which the whole of the earth has become populated and private property has run a course from the ownership of a few acres of land, a small herd of animals, and a few tools until it has reached dimensions that can no longer he controlled by one individual or a family. Property ownership has undergone a development and transformation until private property in the means of production has reached a point where it has become uncontrollable and threatens society with disaster. But the development of this private ownership also engendered the development of those who used the means of production; this development has now reached a point where the producers monopolise all the positions in the production and distribution of the means of living to the exclusion of the owners; the latter have been relegated to the position of simple consumers of wealth in the production of which they, as a class, take no part. The result of this development is that the idea has grown in the minds of the producers that the owners are no longer a necessary evil; the revolt against the owners has also grown in volume and will soon reach a point where the producers will set about abolishing the private ownership of the means of production and substituting for it common ownership. But this common ownership will not be the small community ownership of primitive society; it will be a common ownership that welds the whole of mankind into one universal society, and each member will be able to live a secure and full life as a consequence of the achievements accomplished since the advent of private property.


Let us apply the dialectical materialism of Marx to the development we have described. First the statement that an increase in quantity beyond a certain point results in a change in quality. The increase in the means of production and the product changed the social form from communist society to private property society and will change the latter into a higher form of communist society. Communist society was negated by private property society and this will in turn be negated by a higher form of communist society—-the negation of the negation. The entire process is accomplished by the growth of antagonism and the solving of antagonism; the elements that have changed the form of society were contained within the original communal communities. The unity in the whole progress is social man; the contradictions are the contrary outlooks arising out of the growth of the means of production; the solution is the reduction of these outlooks to one common outlook.


What we have described is the evolution of society, but only in a broad sweep. Social science describes this process in detail, but only a few of the social scientists are free from the influence of private property ideas upon thought, and consequently the nearer they come to the present the less scientific are their conclusions. It is one thing to learn the laws of scientific thinking but quite another to apply those laws to social life. One of these fundamental laws is that there is nothing absolute, static; all is relative, changing. But in the course of these changes the relation of one thing to another is a state of temporary equilibrium. The capitalist and the worker are a unity as portions of mankind and portions of human society; they are in contradiction as opposing elements in the capitalist system of wealth production. This contradiction will only be solved by the abolition of capitalist society. But this abolition can only lead to harmony by the substitution of a higher form of society for capitalism. This in turn can only be achieved by the working class waging the class struggle single-mindedly and relentlessly until they obtain the victory. In other words, the international capitalist class is always the enemy until Socialism has been achieved.


Thus the answer to the question we have been asked is that as the dialectical materialism of Marx is simply “the science of the universal laws of motion, and evolution in nature, human society and thought,” we accept it, but we do not accept the distortion of this view by supporters of Russian “Communism” or others who misuse the means to serve their particular ends.