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Dialectical Materialism

Dialectical Materialism is a way of understanding reality; whether thoughts,

emotions, or the material world. Simply stated, this methodology is the combination
of Dialectics and Materialism. The materialist dialectic is the theoretical foundation
of Marxism (while being communist is the practice of Marxism).

"It is an eternal cycle in which matter moves, a cycle that certainly only completes
its orbit in periods of time for which our terrestrial year is no adequate measure, a
cycle in which the time of highest development, the time of organic life and still
more that of the life of being conscious of nature and of themselves, is just as
narrowly restricted as the space in which life and self-consciousness come into
operation. A cycle in which every finite mode of existence of matter, whether it be
sun or nebular vapour, single animal or genus of animals, chemical combination or
dissociation, is equally transient, and wherein nothing is eternal but eternally
changing, eternally moving matter and the laws according to which it moves and

Fredrick Engels
Dialectics of Nature

"Motion is the mode of existence of matter. Never anywhere has there been matter
without motion, or motion without matter, nor can there be."

"Change of form of motion is always a process that takes place between at least two
bodies, of which one loses a definite quantity of motion of one quality (e.g. heat),
while the other gains a corresponding quantity of motion of another quality
(mechanical motion, electricity, chemical decomposition).

"Dialectics, so-called objective dialectics, prevails throughout nature, and so-called

subjective dialectics (dialectical thought), is only the reflection of the motion
through opposites which asserts itself everywhere in nature, and which by the

continual conflict of the opposites and their final passage into one another, or into
higher forms, determines the life of nature."

Fredrick Engels
Dialectics of Nature

But dialectical materialism insists on the approximate relative character of every

scientific theory of the structure of matter and its properties; it insists on the
absence of absolute boundaries in nature, on the transformation of moving matter
from one state into another, that from our point of view [may be] apparently
irreconcilable with it, and so forth.


Dialectics is the method of reasoning which aims to understand things concretely in

all their movement, change and interconnection, with their opposite and
contradictory sides in unity.

Dialectics is opposed to the formal, metaphysical mode of thought of ordinary

understanding which begins with a fixed definition of a thing according to its various
attributes. For example formal thought would explain: a fish is something with no
legs which lives in the water.

Darwin however, considered fish dialectically: some of the animals living in the
water were not fish, and some of the fish had legs, but it was the genesis of all the
animals as part of a whole interconnected process which explained the nature of a
fish: they came from something and are evolving into something else.

Darwin went behind the appearance of fish to get to their essence. For ordinary
understanding there is no difference between the appearance of a thing and its
essence, but for dialectics the form and content of something can be quite
contradictory parliamentary democracy being the prime example: democracy in
form, but dictatorship in content!

And for dialectics, things can be contradictory not just in appearance, but in
essence. For formal thinking, light must be either a wave or a particle; but the truth
turned out to be dialectical light is both wave and particle. (See the principle of
excluded middle)

We are aware of countless ways of understanding the world; each of which makes
the claim to be the absolute truth, which leads us to think that, after all, Its all
relative!. For dialectics the truth is the whole picture, of which each view is a more
or less one-sided, partial aspect.

At times, people complain in frustration that they lack the Means to achieve their
Ends, or alternatively, that they can justify their corrupt methods of work by the
lofty aims they pursue. For dialectics, Means and Ends are a unity of opposites and
in the final analysis, there can be no contradiction between means and ends when
the objective is rightly understood, "the material conditions [means] for its solution
are already present or at least in the course of formation" (Marx, Preface of
Contribution to a Political Economy)

An example of dialectical reasoning can be seen in Lenin's slogan: All Power to the
Soviets spoken when the Soviets were against the Bolsheviks. Lenin understood,
however, that the impasse could only be resolved by workers power. Since the
Soviets were organs of workers power, a revolutionary initiative by the Bolsheviks
would inevitably bring the Soviets to their side: the form of the Soviets during the
time (lead by Mensheviks and SRs) were at odds with the content of the Soviets as
Workers, Peasants and Soldiers Councils.

Formal thinking often has trouble understanding the causes of events something
has to be a cause and something else the effect and people are surprised when
they irrigate land and 20 years later due to salination of the land, silting of the
waterways, etc they have a desert! Dialectics on the other hand understands that
cause and effect are just one and another side of a whole network of relations such
as we have in an ecosystem, and one thing cannot be changed without changing
the whole system.

These are different aspect of Dialectics, and there are many others, because
dialectics is the method of thinking in which concepts are flexible and mobile,
constrained only by the imperative of comprehending the movement of the object
itself, however contradictory, however transient.

History: Dialectics has its origins in ancient society, both among the Chinese and the
Greeks, where thinkers sought to understand Nature as a whole, and saw that
everything is fluid, constantly changing, coming into being and passing away. It was
only when the piecemeal method of observing Nature in bits and pieces, practiced
in Western thinking in the 17th and 18th century, had accumulated enough positive
knowledge for the interconnections, the transitions, the genesis of things to become
comprehensible, that conditions became ripe for modern dialectics to make its
appearance. It was Hegel who was able to sum up this picture of universal
interconnection and mutability of things in a system of Logic which is the foundation
of what we today call Dialectics.

As Engels put it:

the whole world, natural, historical, intellectual, is represented as a process i.e.,

as in constant motion, change, transformation, development; and the attempt is
made to trace out the internal connection that makes a continuous whole of all this
movement and development. [Socialism: Utopian & Scientific]

It was in the decade after Hegels death the 1840s when Hegels popularity was
at its peak in Germany, that Marx and Engels met and worked out the foundations
of their critique of bourgeois society.

Hegels radical young followers had in their hands a powerful critical tool with which
they ruthlessly criticised Christianity, the dominant doctrine of the day. However,
one of these Young Hegelians, Ludwig Feuerbach, pointed out that Holy Family was
after all only a Heavenly image of the Earthly family, and said that by criticising
theology with philosophy, the Young Hegelians were only doing the same as the
Christians Hegels Absolute Idea was just another name for God! For Feuerbach,
ideas were a reflection of the material world and he held it to be ridiculous that an
Idea could determine the world. Feuerbach had declared himself a materialist.

Marx and Engels began as supporters of Feuerbach. However, very soon they took
up an opposition to Feuerbach to restore the Hegelian dialectic which had been
abandoned by Feuerbach, and to free it from the rigidity of the idealistic Hegelian
system and place the method on a materialist basis:

Hegel was an idealist. To him, the thoughts within his brain were not the more or
less abstract pictures of actual things and processes, but, conversely, things and
their evolution were only the realized pictures of the Idea, existing somewhere
from eternity before the world was. This way of thinking turned everything upside
down, and completely reversed the actual connection of things in the world.
[Fredrick Engels, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific]

Thus, for Marx and Engels, thoughts were not passive and independent reflections
of the material world, but products of human labour, and the contradictory nature of
our thoughts had their origin in the contradictions within human society. This meant
that Dialectics was not something imposed on to the world from outside which could
be discovered by the activity of pure Reason, but was a product of human labour
changing the world; its form was changed and developed by people, and could only
be understood by the practical struggle to overcome these contradictions not just
in thought, but in practice.

Further Reading: [The Science of Dialectics], by Fredrick Engels, Dialectics of Nature,

by Fredrick Engels, an example of dialectics in: The Metaphysics of Political
Economy, by Karl Marx; The ABC of Materialist Dialectics, by Leon Trotsky; Lenin's
Summary of Dialectics.

See also the Sampler for multiple definitions; Dialectics Subject Section. For
examples of Dialectics: references to Examples from History and Society and
Examples from Personal Life in Hegels Logic; and see the definition on Taoism for a
look at an ancient process of dialectics.

A number of history's most illustrious thinkers have wrestled with the meaning of 'dialectic,' and as a result,
the concept has permutated considerably since the inception of Western philosophy. Generally speaking,
dialectic is a mode of thought, or a philosophic medium, through which contradiction becomes a starting
point (rather than a dead end) for contemplation. As such, dialectic is the medium that helps us
comprehend a world that is racked by paradox. Indeed, dialectic facilitates the philosophic enterprise as
described by Bertrand Russell, who wrote that "to teach how to live without certainty, and yet without being
paralyzed by hesitation, is perhaps the chief thing that philosophy, in our age, can still do for those who
study it" (xiv).
The word 'dialectic' is derived from the Greek and has three classical connotations. In Plato's writings,
dialectic is a highly valued vehicle for truth; it is akin to dialogue and closely associated with the Socratic
method. Aristotle, on the other hand, believed that dialectic was an inferior form of reasoning, as it was
based on a priori knowledge rather than empirical observation. Finally, Cicero associated dialectic with
rhetoric. In modern times, dialectic has been vital within the German philosophical tradition beginning with
Kant. His definition of dialectic, which is closely related to that of Aristotle, involves illusory knowledge that
is reminiscent of sophistry. In other words, "[Kant's] dialectic no longer offers rules for executing convincing
judgments, but teaches how to detect and uncover judgments which bear a semblance of truth but are in
fact illusory" (Caygill 157). Kant's dialectic could be considered a medium of false epistemology.
It is with Hegel, however, that the modern notion of dialectic crystallized. While his thinking was shaped by
Kant's discussion of antimonies in The Critique of Pure Reason , Hegel considered dialectic a medium of truth
rather than a means to uncover illusion. Above all, Hegel's dialectic was based on his emphatic belief in
connectedness, or the interrelation of all aspects of the universe. In other words, "the apparent selfsubstinence of finite things appeared to him as illusion; nothing, he held, is ultimately and completely real
except the whole" (Caygill 157). Indeed, dialectic was the cornerstone of his philosophy, and he
conceptualized systems as diverse as the history of the world and the journey of the human spirit as
operating according to dialectical structures.
Roughly speaking, Hegel's dialectic involves the reconciliation of ostensible paradoxes to arrive at absolute
truth. The general formulation of Hegel's dialectic is a three-step process comprising the movement from
thesis to antithesis to synthesis. One begins with a static, clearly delineated concept (or thesis), then moves
to its opposite (or antithesis), which represents any contradictions derived from a consideration of the rigidly
defined thesis. The thesis and antithesis are yoked and resolved to form the embracing resolution, or

synthesis. Succinctly put, the dialectic "actualizes itself by alienating itself, and restores its self-unity by
recognizing this alienation as nothing other than its own free expression or manifestation" (Bottomore 122).
This formula is infinitely renewable; Hegel contended it would only terminate upon the world's end. Each
time synthesis is achieved it "generate[s] new internal contradictions, and then a further resolution" (Macey
96). It is also teleological because "each later stage of dialectic contains all the earlier stages, as it were in
solution; none of them is wholly superceded, but is given its proper place as a moment in the whole"
(Russell 731). The infinite character of the dialectic reflects Hegel's notion of holistic truth and his optimistic
belief in progress.
Dialectic permeated Hegel's philosophy, but his dialectical model of subjectivity as the interpenetration
between subject and object probably holds the most relevance for us today. In The Phenomenology of
Spirit , Hegel described subjectivity as "a being-for-self which is for itself only through another" (115). In
other words, I can never define myself purely in relation to myself; it is through my interaction with the
external world that I become aware of my self-consciousness. The subject only exists through its
relationship with others: "Self-consciousness exists in and for itself when, and by the fact that, it so exists
for another; that is, it exists only in being acknowledged" (111). The following passage addresses this
dialectical relationship: Among the countless differences cropping up here we find in every case that the
crucial one is that, in sense-certainty, pure being at once splits up into what we have called the two 'Thises,'
one 'This' as 'I,' and the other 'This' as object. When we reflect on this difference, we find that neither one
nor the other is immediately present in sense-certainty, but each is at the same time mediated : I have this
certainty through something else, viz. the thing; and it, similarly, is in sense-certaintythrough something
else, viz. through the 'I'. It is not just we who make this distinction between essence and instance, between
immediacy and mediation; on the contrary, we find it within sense-certainty itself...(59, Hegel's emphasis).
Significantly, subjectivity is not merely a one-sided relationship through which the outside world, or
[reality , (2)] , is defined (mediated) according to sensory input (see senses). Hegel's subject is not an
autonomous entity that interprets the world; additionally, the world interprets the subject. The subject is
constantly adjusting its self-conception based on its interaction with external reality.
Marx shared Hegel's interest in modeling subjectivity as a dialectical relationship. Dialectical materialism is
the first important permutation of the Hegelian dialectic, and the ways in which it departs from Hegel can be
summarized by a cursory glance at the fundamental difference between Idealism and Materialism. In short,
Hegel's dialectic assumed that rationality was the driving force in the universe, whereas Marx focused on
material forces as directing the world's course. In other words, "within the Marxist philosophy of dialectical
materialism, the idea of the dialectic refers to the contradiction between classes, the forces and relations of
production, and modes of production" (Macey 96).
The synthesis of Hegel's cerebral metaphysics and Marx's secular philosophy is embodied in the Critical
Theory of the Frankfurt School. Martin Jay, a noted Frankfurt School historian, writes that, "Critical theory,
as its name implies, was expressed through a series of critiques of other thinkers and philosophical
traditions. Its development was thus through dialogue, its genesis as dialectical as the method it purported
to apply to social phenomena" (40). While aspects of Hegelian and Marxist dialectics played an important
role in the formulations of the Frankfurt School at large, Adorno was particularly taken with dialectical
formulations, an emphasis that can be registered in countless ways down to the paradoxical aphorisms for
which he is famous. The rudiment of Adorno's worldview is the notion that progressive and regressive
elements of society derive from a single source. This principle is illustrated in The Dialectic of
Enlightenment , in which he and Horkheimer posit that the "Enlightenment has put aside the classic
requirement of thinking about thought" (25). This position is implicit in many tenets of Frankfurt School
aesthetics, including conceptions of aura, modern sensory experience and the culture industry.
While Adorno's appropriations of dialectic are not purely Hegelian, he shared Hegel's interest in
interpenetrative subject/object relationships. His work along these lines is particularly relevant to media
studies because he often focused on the relationship between audience and artwork. He asserted that this
relationship often worked according to a negative dialectic through which society influenced the
commercialization of art and art, in turn, discouraged reflective experience in society. Additionally, Adorno

elucidated the dialectical relationship between the artist and culture. For example, his essay "On Lyric Poetry
and Society" uses a dialectical model to expound the interpenetration ofpoetry and society. Adorno explains
that, "the subject and object are not rigid and isolated poles but can be defined only in the process in which
they distinguish themselves from one another and change" (44). Thus, the ' lyric I' is always defined
through its antipathetic relationship to society. Furthermore, it is mediated through language, which is
organically oriented toward society because of its communicative function. Adorno's debt to the Hegelian
dialectic is evident when he writes that, "The paradox specific to the lyric work, a subjectivity that turns into
objectivity, is tied to the priority of linguistic formin lyric" (43).
The polymorphous dialectical formulations of Frankfurt School theory anticipated the multifarious
interpretations of dialectic in the contemporary sphere vis--vis semiotics and the philosophy of language.
Other intellectuals have adopted the term in a more generalized manner, e.g., Robert Smithson posited
dialectic as "a way of seeing things in a manifold of relations, not as isolated objects" (119). Smithson
criticized the Hegelian dialectic as "an inner movement of the mind" (119) and described earthworks such
asThe Spiral Jetty as exploding the "formalistic view of nature" (119). Generally speaking, dialectic can be a
useful way to conceptualize subject/object relationships in any number of contexts, particularly artistic
contexts. Dialectic allows us to break down the bifurcated model of spectator/artwork so that, for example,
it becomes possible for both the reader and writer to create meaning in a poem, and for an abstract
(see abstraction) painting to reveal something intrinsic to both artwork and beholder.
Kim O'Connor
Winter 2003