Sunday, 30 November 2008

Dialectical materialism, part 2

As we have said, Marxism sees the universe as governed by material processes. These do not work in a mechanical fashion, as in the ‘clockwork’ model proposed in the seventeenth century, but is propelled by relationships and contradictions. Dialectics is, in Engels’ words, “nothing more than the science of the general laws of motion and development of nature, human society and thought... Motion is the mode of existence of matter. Never anywhere has there been matter without motion, nor can there be.”[1]

For it [dialectics], nothing is final, absolute, sacred. It reveals the transitory character of everything and in everything; nothing can endure before it except the uninterrupted process of becoming and of passing away, of endless ascendancy from the lower to the higher.[2]

Dialectics can seem contrary to ‘common sense’ or even irrational, especially when set against formal logic. Yet the concept is confirmed both by our everyday experience and by scientific investigation. After all, no real piece of clockwork is created, set in motion, and simply ticks forever: in the real world, it will gradually wear down, rust and disintegrate into a new form.

We know the universe is in constant motion. Edward Hubble observed in 1929 that galaxies were moving away from us in every direction; every object in our solar system is in orbit around the sun. On Earth, the tectonic plates are constantly changing the shapes of the continents, pulling them apart, pushing them together, creating and removing land bridges, etc. Species appear, thrive for sometimes millions of years, then die out leaving only a few bones behind. We ourselves are not static but come into existence, develop and then pass away; while we live, our cells are regularly renewed, meaning that the physical stuff we are made of is not the same stuff we were made of ten years ago. Even concerning life and death, which seem to us such clear opposites, it is very difficult to find a clear line between the two states. As for the “ascendancy from the lower to the higher”, the perfect illustration is the evolution of species, in which species give way to new ones better adapted to their environment. (We should however avoid interpreting ‘higher’ as a value judgement, inappropriately imposing a notion of progress on an evolutionary process of best fit.) Dialectics shows that matter is not just in motion but is impelled by contradictions. Instead of a smooth progression of states, we have gradual accumulations of quantitative changes that occasionally undergo qualitative leaps into new forms. It is these changes of quality (again, quality in the sense of attributes or properties, not necessarily of being ‘better’) that distinguish chimps and archaic humans from their common ancestor, Homo sapiens from earlier human species, etc.

To take an example from anthropology, the faces of Homo sapiens are not prognathous like other human species but under the braincase. This trait, which allowed the expansion of key parts of the brain, required only a few genetic changes, suggesting a fairly sudden leap from one form to a crucially different one.[3]

Eastern thought has produced theories of dialectics, as in the Hindu, Jain and Buddhist traditions. In ancient Greece, dialectics was first formulated in the 6th century BCE by Heraclitus, who believed all things to be in flux. Everything was composed of opposites, and the only reality was that of change: hence his famous metaphor, “no one steps into the same river twice”[4]. The influence of Heraclitus was enduring. Hegel, the most significant influence on Marx, said “there is no sentence of Heraclitus’ that I have not taken into my Logic.”[5]

Hegel and Marx

Enthused by the French Revolution, Hegel developed a system that saw humanity advancing through historical stages, each of which took us closer towards realisation of the Idea. Hegel found the motor for these successive stages by reviving Greek dialectics.

Although Hegel’s system was a huge advance on its ‘mechanical’ predecessors, it still conceived the world from an idealist perspective, which (as we saw in part 1) put it in contradiction with itself. Marx adopted Hegel’s dialectics while adapting them to materialism. He explained it thus:

My dialectic method is not only different from the Hegelian, but is its direct opposite. To Hegel, the life-process of the human brain, i.e., the process of thinking, which, under the name of ‘the Idea,’ he even transforms into an independent subject, is the demiurgos of the real world, and the real world is only the external, phenomenal form of ‘the Idea’. With me, on the contrary, the ideal is nothing else than the material world reflected by the human mind, and translated into forms of thought.[6]

For Marx the driving force of both natural processes and history was not contradictions between ideas but between material and social processes. This is the basis of what Marx called ‘the materialist conception of history’, which holds that social change is brought about by human actions rather than absolute and external forces.

We are not saying that Marxism does not recognise abstractions. Any item, considered in isolation, is an abstraction — abstraction is a necessary part of human thought. An actual object however is always concrete, and exists in relation to other concrete things. And all things that actually exist are in some state of motion. The variations in that motion are relative, but the existence of motion is absolute. Engels wrote:

Truth, the cognition of which is the business of philosophy, was in the hands of Hegel no longer an aggregate of finished dogmatic statements, which, once discovered, had merely to be learned by heart. Truth lay now in the process of cognition itself, in the long historical development of science, which mounts from lower to ever higher levels of knowledge without ever reaching, by discovering so-called absolute truth, a point at which it can proceed no further, where it would have nothing more to do than to fold its hands and gaze with wonder at the absolute truth to which it had attained.[7]

In this way the human search for knowledge never rests. It advances through a vast number of quantitative additions to the sum of knowledge, and occasionally — as with Newton’s theory of gravity, Einstein’s theory of relativity, etc — makes dramatic leaps into new conceptions of the universe. These conceptions are themselves succeeded, and so on, without end.

Formal logic vs dialectics

Dialectics may be termed the logic of change. Traditional logic — from the Greek logos, meaning ‘word’ or ‘reason’ — was originally formulated by Aristotle, and seeks to define laws for rational thought. Aristotelian logic contends that there are three laws of logic:

1. A equals A (a thing is equal to itself);
2. A does not equal not-A (a thing is not equal to something other than itself);
3. There is no thing which is not either A or not-A (i.e. there is no indeterminate middle ground).

These are the assumptions underlying syllogisms, which run like this:

Cleopatra is a human being.
Human beings are mortal.
Therefore Cleopatra is mortal.

The last statement seems a consistent and obvious conclusion, and formal logic does have its uses. Basic mathematics depends upon it. These laws seem self-evidently sensible, because a clock, say, is either a clock or it isn’t. And Marxism does not dispute that a clock is a clock. But fixed logic is limited because it deals only with fixed states, and does not allow for change, when in fact no thing is perfectly self-contained — every thing lives in a relationship with other things. The piece of clockwork we mentioned earlier will wear down more quickly if left outside in the rain than if it is kept indoors at an even temperature. It does not exist in glorious isolation but in a context with other things and processes.

These processes involve not a rigid ‘either/or’ but an infinite number of interdependent stages. At what precise point in time may we say, for example, that an ape has evolved into a human? On what day, at what minute or second, can the French Revolution be said to begin?

Three principles of dialectics

Hegel, and later Engels, outlined three main principles for dialectical motion:

1. The law of the transformation of quantity into quality and vice versa;
2. The law of the interpenetration of opposites;
3. The law of the negation of the negation.

1. The transformation of quantity into quality

Processes of change are not smooth and even. Some change is immensely slow, other change very fast. Dialectical materialism sees change as resulting from a series of quantitative changes, which accumulate until a qualitative change is brought about. This new quality is not a peaceful outgrowth of what existed before, but a radical break with it. A good example is the boiling of water. As the water gets hotter, it bubbles more and more but it is still water. When it reaches 100 degrees Celsius, however, it turns to steam, i.e. it is no longer water — quantitative change has passed into qualitative change.

Human DNA is separated from that of chimpanzees by just 2%, but this 2% is decisive; in it is encapsulated the leap of quality that makes us human beings.

2. The unity and conflict of opposites

“Contradiction is the root of all movement and vitality,” wrote Hegel, “and it is only insofar as it contains a contradiction that anything moves and has impulse and activity.”[8] Every thing is a balance between the forces that created it, and contains forces that will break it up or transform it. These contradictions are what create change. One of the most famous examples of this in Marxist theory is the class struggle:

It is common knowledge that, in any given society, the strivings of some of its members conflict with the strivings of others, that social life is full of contradictions, and that history reveals a struggle between nations and societies, as well as within nations and societies, and, besides, an alternation of periods of revolution and reaction, peace and war, stagnation and rapid progress or decline.[9]

The ultimate contradiction within capitalism is that it creates a proletariat that can destroy it.

Countless things in the universe exist in opposition to one another: rich and poor, capitalism and socialism, positive and negative, light and dark, thought and matter and so on. To understand a thing one must seek out the contradictory forces that combine within it. An atom is constructed around a nucleus containing positively-charged protons and neutral neutrons; negatively-charged electrons surround the nucleus, bound to it by electromagnetic force. The atom as a whole is electrically neutral, because the protons and electrons cancel one another out.

3. The negation of the negation

During a process of change, the ‘negative’ quality that caused the change is itself ‘negated’ or transformed into something new. As one thing comes into being, its predecessor passes away. As the steam comes out of the kettle, it represents the negation of the water. The steam itself won’t last forever — for example it might change into condensation on a window. As the steam is the negation of the water, so the condensation is the negation of the steam. This is the negation (in turn) of the negation (that caused the original change).

Whereas metaphysics moves in circles, this movement is best described in terms of a spiral: the thing returns to where it was, but at a higher level, and the thing it used to be is not entirely replaced. Thus elements of feudalism live on in bourgeois society — the British monarchy being an obvious example — and elements of older species survive in newer ones. When a human gets goose pimples, it is because in apes and early humans this raised the hairs to trap a layer of warm air. We have evolved into a new form for which the response is ineffective because we are a relatively naked ape. However, the goose pimples remain — they are vestigial, which means that they have lost their original function. Or Engels offered this illustration:

Butterflies, for example, spring from the egg through a negation of the egg, they pass through certain transformations until they reach sexual maturity, they pair and are in turn negated, dying as soon as the pairing process has been completed and the female has laid its numerous eggs.[10]

Marx and Engels did not ‘invent’ socialism. It had already been put forward by a number of earlier groups and thinkers, from the Diggers in the English Civil War period who wanted communal property rights to utopian [11] socialists such as Owen or Saint-Simon. What Marx and Engels did was build upon existing socialist thought and, by putting it upon a scientific basis, take it to a higher stage.

Dialectics and the ruling class

Dialectics is a problem for any ruling class because it wants the period of its rule to last for ever, and to present its values as being eternal. If one accepts that change is fundamental to everything, one must accept that this includes systems of government and modes of production, whereas the bourgeoisie wishes it to be taken for granted that there will always be inequality, war, and so on. It often justifies them on the grounds that they are caused by the selfishness of ‘human nature’: an absolute which it is futile to try and change. Marx wrote in Capital,

In its rational form [dialectics] is a scandal and abomination to the bourgeoisie and its doctrinaire spokesmen... because it includes in its positive understanding of what exists a simultaneous recognition of its negation, its inevitable destruction; because it regards every historically developed form as being in a fluid state, in motion, and therefore grasps its transient aspect as well; and because it does not let itself be impressed by anything, being in its very essence critical and revolutionary.[12]

The debate between dialectics and what we might term metaphysics is then one of two opposing philosophical systems. They have consequences in politics, just as politics has consequences for them. The most superficial understanding of history shows that forms of society come into existence, develop and interact with others, and then pass away to be succeeded by new forms. The non-dialectical model tolerates rigid classifications, erects walls between disciplines. It considers societies (or other subjects) abstractly, unhistorically. In an early article, for example, I noted a shortcoming in Gombrich’s The Story of Art: it has no conception of the historical forces that conditioned stylistic change in the arts.

I am not claiming that bourgeois science cannot be excellent and offer profound insights into how things work. But as well as the good work we must wade through reductionism, mystification and confusions. There is no mystery to the bourgeoisie’s resistance to a scientific approach: it is impossible to study society scientifically without being struck by the pressing need to change it.


Although these processes can be analysed in retrospect, predicting them is difficult. The reason is that so many different processes are at work that it is practically impossible to know quite how their interactions will resolve themselves. We may speculate about future events, based upon the most accurate information we have, but there is no such thing as fortune-telling. Nor is dialectical materialism a magic wand that can explain all problems. Here is Trotsky:

The dialectic... does not replace concrete scientific analysis. But it directs this analysis along the correct road, securing it against sterile wanderings in the desert of subjectivism and scholasticism.[13]

Readers may wonder what the relevance is of ‘the unity of opposites’ or ‘the negation of the negation’ to the real world or to art. In fact they are evident everywhere, not just in Marx and Engels’ own writings but in the processes of the natural world. “Nature,” said Engels, “is the proof of dialectics.”

Max Raphael described art as “the active dialogue between spirit and matter” [14] — two aspects both in contradiction and in unity. The motor of a novel’s plot is often described by critics as a conflict between the protagonist and his or her environment: what is this if not a contradiction? What is the clashing of lines, shapes and colours upon a canvas, or the contrast in tone between strings and woodwind in a symphony, but a contradiction?

In this blog, we will explore the direct relevance of dialectical materialism to art in more detail. As we explore the origins of the aesthetic sense, the history of artistic styles, etc, it will become more and more clear that without a scientific perspective, those “sterile wanderings in the desert of subjectivism and scholasticism” will only confuse the study of art.

Reading on dialectical materialism

Engels, Dialectics of Nature
Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German PhilosophyMarx and Engels, The German Ideology
Engels, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific
Engels, Anti-Dühring
Trotsky, The ABC of Materialist Dialectics
Plekhanov, The Development of the Monist View of History

[1] Engels, part 1 chapter 6 of Anti-Dühring (1877).
[2] Engels, Part 1 of Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy (1886).
[3] See Michael Balter, ‘What Made Humans Modern?’, Science (February 2002).
[4] Fragment 91 of Heraclitus’ ‘book’, known as On Nature, which only survives through citations by other writers.
[5] Hegel, Volume I of Lectures on the History of Philosophy.
[6] Marx, Afterword (1873) to the second German edition of vol. 1 of Capital (1867).
[7] Engels, op. cit.
[8] Hegel, Science of Logic (1812–1832).
[9] Lenin, The Three Sources and Component Parts of Marxism (1913).
[10] Engels, chapter 13 of Anti-Dühring (1877).
[11] ‘Utopian’ because their goals cannot be achieved.
[12] Marx, op. cit.
[13] Trotsky, The ABC of Materialist Dialectics (1939).
[14] Max Raphael, The Demands of Art (1968).

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