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Dialectical materialism is the philosophical basis of Marxism as defined by later Communists and their Parties (sometimes called "orthodox" Marxism). As the name signals, it is an outgrowth of both Hegel's dialectics and Ludwig Feuerbach's and Karl Marx's philosophical materialism, and is most directly traced to Marx's fellow thinker, Friedrich Engels.

Dialectical materialism may be defined as the philosophical doctrine which claims to "put Hegel's dialectics back on its feet" (Marx) and asserts that "The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles." (The Communist Manifesto, 1848). It is contrasted with historical materialism, which rather designs Marx's methodological approach to the study of society, economics and history. Dialectical materialism is essentially characterized by the belief that history is the product of class struggle and obeys to the general hegelian principle of philosophy of history, that is the development of the thesis into its antithesis which is sublated by the synthesis — which conserves the thesis and the antithesis while at the same time abolishing it (Aufheben — this contradiction explains the difficulties of Hegel's thought). Hegel's dialectics aims at explaining the growth and development of human history. He considered that truth was the product of history and passed through various moments, including the moment of error — error, or also negativity, is part of the development of truth — Marx's dialectical materialism considers, against Hegel's idealism, that history is not the product of the Spirit (Geist or also Zeitgeist — the "Spirit of the Time") but the effect of material class struggle in society. Theory thus has its roots in the materiality of social existence. However, "dialectical materialism" also refers to diamat (an abbreviation for "dialectical materialism"), that is the orthodox Marxism imposed by Stalin on the Comintern and on Communist states.

Marx, however, never used the term of "dialectical materialism" itself, which was probably invented in 1887 by Joseph Dietzgen, a socialist tanner whom corresponded with Marx. Georgi Plekhanov, the father of Russian socialism, later used it and it thus entered Marxist theory. Marx had talked about the "materialist conception of history", which was later shortened to "historical materialism" by Engels. Engels exposed the "materialist dialectic" — not "dialectical materialism" — in his Dialectics of Nature (1883). Diamat was debated and criticized by many Marxist philosophers, which led to various political and philosophical struggles in the Marxist movement in general and in the Comintern in particular.

A brief history of dialectical materialism thought Edit

Lenin's Materialism and Empiriocriticism (1908) and the 1917 October Revolution Edit

Dialectical materialism was first elaborated by Lenin in Materialism and Empiriocriticism (1908) around three axes: the "materialist inversion" of Hegelian dialectics, the historicity of ethical principles ordered to class struggle and the convergence of "laws of evolution" in physics (Hemlholtz), biology (Darwin) and in political economics (Marx). Lenin hence took position between a historicist Marxism (Labriola) and a determinist Marxism, close to "social darwinism" (Kautsky). Following the 1917 October Revolution, Soviet philosophy divided itself between "dialecticians" (Deborine) and "mechanists" (Bukharin).

Georg Lukács' History and Class Consciousness (1921-23) and the Vth Comintern Congress (1924) Edit

Georg Lukács, who had been minister of Culture in Bela Kun's short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic (1919), published History and Class Consciousness in 1923, in which he defined dialectical materialism as the knowledge of society as a whole, knowledge which in itself was immediately the class consciousness of the proletariat. In the first chapter, "What is Orthodox Marxism?", Lukács defined orthodoxy as the fidelity to the "Marxist method", and not to the "dogmas":

"Orthodox Marxism, therefore, does not imply the uncritical acceptance of the results of Marx’s investigations. It is not the ‘belief’ in this or that thesis, nor the exegesis of a ‘sacred’ book. On the contrary, orthodoxy refers exclusively to method. It is the scientific conviction that dialectical materialism is the road to truth and that its methods can be developed, expanded and deepened only along the lines laid down by its founders." (§1)

Joseph Dietzgen

Joseph Dietzgen, the inventor of the term "dialectical materialism".

Lukács criticized revisionist attempts by calling to the return to this Marxist method. In much the same way that Althusser would latter define Marxism and psychoanalysis as "conflictual sciences" [1], Lukács conceives "revisionism" and political splits as inherent to Marxist theory and praxis, insofar as dialectical materialism is, according to him, the product of class struggle:

"For this reason the task of orthodox Marxism, its victory over Revisionism and utopianism can never mean the defeat, once and for all, of false tendencies. It is an ever-renewed struggle against the insidious effects of bourgeois ideology on the thought of the proletariat. Marxist orthodoxy is no guardian of traditions, it is the eternally vigilant prophet proclaiming the relation between the tasks of the immediate present and the totality of the historical process." (end of §5)

Furthermore, he stated that "The premise of dialectical materialism is, we recall: 'It is not men’s consciousness that determines their existence, but on the contrary, their social existence that determines their consciousness.'... Only when the core of existence stands revealed as a social process can existence be seen as the product, albeit the hitherto unconscious product, of human activity." (§5) In line with Marx's thought, he thus criticized the individualist bourgeois philosophy of the subject, which founds itself on the voluntary and conscious subject. Against this ideology, he asserts the primacy of social relations. Existence — and thus the world — is the product of human activity; but this can be seen only if the primacy of social process on individual consciousness, which is but the effect of ideological mystification, is accepted. This doesn't entails that Lukács restrains human liberty on behalf of some kind of sociological determinism: to the contrary, this production of existence is the possibility of praxis.

This heterodox definition, however, which he maintained by asserting that "orthodox Marxism" is fidelity to the Marxist "method", and not to "dogmas", was condemned, along with Karl Korsch's work, in July 1924, during the Vth Comintern Congress, by Grigory Zinoviev.

Stalin's codification of diamat Edit

In 1931, Stalin decided of the issue of the debate between dialecticians and mechanists by publishing a decree which identified dialectical materialism to Marxism-Leninism. He then codified it in Dialectical and Historical Materialism (1938) by enumerating the "laws of dialectics", which are the grounds of particular disciplines and in particular of the science of history, and which guarantees their conformity to the "proletarian conception of the world". Thus, diamat imposed itself on most Communist parties.

Marxist criticisms of dialectical materialism Edit

However, the doctrine of dialectical materialism has been criticized by many Marxist theorists, including Marxist philosophers such as Antonio Gramsci, who opposed a Marxist "philosophy of praxis", or Louis Althusser. Other thinkers in Marxist philosophy have had recourse to the original texts of Marx and Engels and have created other Marxist philosophical projects and concepts which are rival alternatives to dialectical materialism. As soon as 1937, Mao Zedong had opposed another interpretation in his essay On Contradiction, in which he rejected the "laws of dialectics" and insisted on the complexity of the contradiction, a text from which Althusser would inspire himself in For Marx (1965). Althusser would also complexify the Marxist concept of "contradiction" by borrowing to psychoanalysis its concept of "overdetermination". Althusser would criticize the teleological reading of Marx, which he criticized as a return to Hegel's idealism, and developped a conception of "random materialism" (matérialisme aléatoire), which cut away from the "philosophy of the subject" which had been in force in the Western world for several centuries. Another school of thought, led by Italian philosopher Ludovico Geymonat, constructed a historical epistemology from dialectical materialism.

Materialism in dialectical materialism Edit

Marx's thesis concerned Epicurus and Democritus' atomism, considered as the founder, along with stoicism, of materialism philosophy. He was thus familiar with Lucretius' theory of clinamen, etc. Materialism asserts the primacy of the material world: in short, matter precedes thought. Additionally, materialism 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 in accordance with 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.

"The ideal is nothing else than the material world reflected by the human mind, and translated into forms of thought." --Karl Marx, Das Kapital, Vol. 1.
Marx thus endorsed a materialist philosophy against Hegel's idealism; he "turned Hegel's dialectics upside down". However, Marx's materialist position is not to be confused with simple materialism: in fact, he criticized classic materialism as another idealist philosophy. According to the famous Theses on Feuerbach (1845), philosophy had to stop "interpreting" the world in endless metaphysical debates, in order to start "transforming" the world. Which the rising workers' movement, observed by Engels in England (Chartist movement) and by Marx in France and Germany, was precisely doing. Historical materialism is therefore the primacy accorded to class struggle. The ultimate sense of Marx's materialism philosophy is that philosophy itself must take position in the class struggle, if it is not to be reduced to spiritualist Idealism (such as Kant or Hegel's philosophies) which are, in fact, only ideologies, that is the material product of social existence. Marx's materialism thus latter opened up the way for Frankfurt School's critical theory, which combined philosophy with the social sciences in an attempt to diagnosticize the ailments of society. Dialectical materialism itself would however be reduced to the diamat orthodox theory.

Dialectics in dialectical materialism Edit

For formal approaches, the main predication of 'dialectical opposition or contradiction' must be understood as 'some sense' opposition between the objects involved in a directly associated context. 'Dialectical contradiction' is not reducible to simple 'opposites' or 'negation'.

Dialectics is the science of the general and abstract laws of the development of nature, society, and thought. Its principal features are:

1) The universe is not a disconnected mix of things isolated from each other, but an integral whole, with the result that things are interdependent.

2) Nature - the natural world or cosmos - is in a state of constant motion:

"All nature, from the smallest thing to the biggest, from a grain of sand to the sun, from the protista to man, is in a constant state of coming into being and going out of being, in a constant flux, in a ceaseless state of movement and change." --Friedrich Engels, Dialectics of Nature.

3) Development is a process whereby insignificant and imperceptible quantitative changes lead to fundamental, qualitative changes. The latter occur not gradually, but rapidly and abruptly, in the form of a leap from one state to another. A simple example from the physical world might be the heating of water: a one degree increase in temperature is a quantitive change, but at 100 degrees there is a qualitative change - water to steam.

"Merely quantitative differences, beyond a certain point, pass into qualitative changes." --Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. 1.

4) All things contain within themselves internal dialectical contradictions, which are the primary cause of motion, change, and development in the world.

Laws of dialecticsEdit

The three laws of dialectics are:

  • 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 application of the dialectic to history is covered more in Historical materialism.


"The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question. Man must prove the truth, i.e., the reality and power, the this-worldliness of his thinking in practice." --Karl Marx, Theses on Feuerbach

Endnotes Edit

  1. Louis Althusser, "Marx and Freud", in Writings on Psychoanalysis, Stock/IMEC, 1993 (French edition)

Selected readings on dialectical materialismEdit

See alsoEdit



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