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A Short Note on Dialectical Materialism
by Brad Forrest
Friday Aug 17th, 2012 6:55 PM
In order to move forward from capitalist society the working class needs an ironclad philosophy, one that can be of use in the storm and stress of revolution. Making sense of a turbulent world requires a method of thinking that is flexible, fluid and takes evolutionary transformation into account.
This world outlook of Marxism is called dialectical materialism, a philosophy that is the direct descendent of the great Enlightenment thinkers of the eighteenth century but which revolutionized their thinking by introducing a historical dimension. The achievement was scientific materialism enriched with the theory of evolution propounded by G.W.F Hegel. Materialism states that our ideas are a reflection of the material universe that exists independently of any observer. It’s dialectical in that it is always in a state of movement, and change. In the next paragraphs we will give an overview of dialectical versus formal logic.

One of the early dialectical philosophers was the Greek Heraclitus, “the obscure” (535-475 BCE). He is famous for saying that “you never step into the same river twice.” He also noted, “The way up is the way down,” and that “Everything is pregnant with its contrary.” This conflict, or continual contradiction, he called strife. Strife, he claimed, is the basis of all movement, and propels everything forward.

Another pre-Socratic philosopher of note is the formal logician Parmenides, who in the early 5th century BC formulated the opposite case by stating that “everything is and nothing is not.” This dictum essentially attempts to rule out change as a fundamental fact of nature. He only interests us because of the far out conclusions one reaches when meandering in the world of metaphysics. Contrary to perception, “Existence is timeless, uniform, necessary, and unchanging,” states Parmenides.

Now consider the famous paradoxes of Zeno (490-430 BCE), another anti-dialectical logician of early Greece. He takes the method of reduction ad absurdum to come up with his philosophy of “the one,” that all is one, and that plurality and change are an illusion. Zeno pointed out that, from the standpoint of the formal logician, movement itself was not just a contradiction, but impossible. For example, imagine someone setting out on a jog. With movement they are both “here” and “there” at the same time, a contradiction. If you proceed without acknowledging this contradiction then it appears that the runner cannot possibly move at all!

Formal logic has its place, because we have to be able to make distinctions between phenomena, for instance, between life and death. But formal logic has its limits, because it is virtually impossible to draw a clear line between the two. Consequently, we have to operate with a more precise instrument, that is dialectical logic.

The difference between idealist philosophy, and materialist philosophy is simple. Idealists, like Plato (424-348 BCE), for instance, postulate that there are perfect archetypes — in the realm of ideas or the heavens — of which the actual world is an imperfect expression. Idealists almost always come to the conclusion that there is a God who governs all.

Materialist philosophers postulate that the world is primary, and evolves without the interference of a God. One of the earliest materialist philosophers was Thales of Miletus (624-546 BCE). He stated that the universe was composed of water as the ultimate substance. His outstanding contribution to philosophy was that he was one of the first to try to explain reality without reference to supernatural powers. It is a project that we are still building on today.

These two world outlooks have, with variation, been embedded in philosophical schools ever since. The French philosophers of the eighteenth century developed materialism, and built on British philosopher John Locke’s (1632-1704 AD) famous dictum that there are, “no innate ideas.” Human beings are the product of heredity and their environment, especially the early formative years. The French, pre-Marxist, materialism was “mechanical,” that is they did not incorporate the idea of evolution or history that would later become famous via Charles Darwin (1809-1882) in his, Origin of Species.

Darwinism, the idea that species evolve, dealt the deathblow to the un-changing “mechanical” materialism of the French philosophers. A new logic was needed to comprehend the advances made in science. That logic was first elucidated by the Idealist German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel.

Logic since Aristotle (384-322 BCE) had been based on the so-called formal logic of A = A, a thing is always equal to itself. With the advances in science just after the French Revolution Hegel was able to propound a new logic, which based itself on movement. This can be summed up with the idea that A = -A, everything will eventually change into its opposite. Light and dark, life and death, up and down, all phenomena are in movement and eventually change into their opposite. Even the most durable elements break down into nothing over time.

Although Hegel (1770-1831 AD) was a dialectical thinker, he was also an Idealist, who believed in the “idea” predating the universe, which alienates, goes out of itself, and undergoes evolution in the world until it’s finally comprehended by philosophical man. Translated into more popular language, this means he believed that God or Mind rules the universe and that history is governed by an evolving logic that can be rationally understood.

Marx and Engels took dialectical logic out of its “Hegelian” straightjacket, and married dialectics to materialism. Hegel supplied several insights that help make sense of processes of change. He noted that all material things undergo an evolutionary transformation of quantitative (gradual) development into qualitative (punctuated) change, for example, the slow gestation and then finally the abrupt birth of a child. Hegel also elaborated evolution through contradiction, for example positive and negative charges, living and dying, hot and cold, etc. There are other valuable lessons of dialectical logic that can be applied to phenomena undergoing transformation; even understanding politics and society can be enhanced better when using a logical framework (dialectics) that starts with the premise of change and flux, especially when one considers the struggle between classes that are diametrically opposed such as the working class and the capitalist class.

In Ludwig Feuerbach, and the End of Classical German Philosophy, Engels makes the astounding assertion that philosophy “as such” had become obsolete. With the advent of dialectical materialism a special philosophy sitting “queen like” over the sciences was unnecessary. What remains of all previous philosophy is formal logic, and dialectics, the rest is a summing up of the different scientific branches. Lenin said long ago that Marxism is omnipotent because it’s true. We might add that it should be studied with care because it helps provide the answers to the burning questions that haunt mankind.