(a)   What is Dialectical Materialism?


Rob Sewell

Rob Sewell here provides us with an exploration of the concepts of Dialectical Materialism as well as its history in evolution and development. This serves as a very useful general introduction. It maps out at once what a student of Marxism must expect to learn and know in detail when they get to the works of Marx and Engels with respect to the dialectical materialist principle. Most important of all, the reader, who seeks to come to grips with the intellectual history of Marxism, needs to follow the thread of that history in this reading: from the Greek philosophers to the 20th century revolutionary developers. Read on:

Do we need a philosophy?

Scientific socialism or Marxism is composed of three component parts: Dialectical Materialism, Historical Materialism and Marxist Economics. This pamphlet, the first in this series, is an introduction to the concepts of Dialectical Materialism – the method of Marxism.

For those unacquainted with Marxist philosophy, dialectical materialism may seem an obscure and difficult concept. However, for those prepared to take the time to study this new way of looking at things, they will discover a revolutionary outlook that will allow them an insight into and understanding of the mysteries of the world in which we live. A grasp of dialectical materialism is an essential prerequisite in understanding the doctrine of Marxism. Dialectical materialism is the philosophy of Marxism, which provides us with a scientific and comprehensive world outlook. It is the philosophical bedrock – the method – on which the whole of Marxist doctrine is founded.

According to Engels, dialectics was ‘our best working tool and our sharpest weapon.’ And for us also, it is a guide to action and our activities within the working class movement. It is similar to a compass or map, which allows us to get our bearings in the turmoil of events, and permits us to understand the underlying processes that shape our world.

Whether we like it or not, consciously or unconsciously, everyone has a philosophy. A philosophy is simply a way of looking at the world. Under capitalism, without our own scientific philosophy, we will inevitably adopt the dominant philosophy of the ruling class and the prejudices of the society in which we live. ‘Things will never change’ is a common refrain, reflecting the futility of changing things and of the need to accept our lot in life. There are other such proverbs as ‘There is nothing new under the sun’, and ‘History always repeats itself’, which reflect the same conservative outlook. Such ideas, explained Marx, form a crushing weight on the consciousness of men and women.

Just as the emerging bourgeoisie in its revolution against feudal society challenged the conservative ideas of the old feudal aristocracy, so the working class, in its fight for a new society, needs to challenge the dominant outlook of its own oppressor, the capitalist class. Of course, the ruling class, through its monopoly control of the mass media, the press, school, university and pulpit, consciously justifies its system of exploitation as the most ‘natural form of society’. The repressive state machine, with its ‘armed bodies of men’, is not sufficient to maintain the capitalist system. The dominant ideas and morality of bourgeois society serve as a vital defence of the material interests of the ruling class. Without this powerful ideology, the capitalist system could not last for any length of time.

‘In one way or another,’ states Lenin, ‘all official and liberal science defends wage-slavery… To expect science to be impartial in a wage-slave society is as foolishly naïve as to expect impartiality from manufacturers on the question of whether workers’ wages ought not to be increased by decreasing the profits of capital.’

Official bourgeois ideology conducts a relentless war against Marxism, which it correctly sees as a mortal danger to capitalism. The bourgeois scribes and professors pour out a continual stream of propaganda in an attempt to discredit Marxism – particularly the dialectic. This has especially been the case since the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and the ferocious ideological offensive against Marxism, communism, revolution, and such like. ‘Marxism is dead’, they repeatedly proclaim like some religious incantation. But Marxism refuses to lie down in front of these witch doctors! Marxism reflects the unconscious will of the working class to change society. Its fate is linked to that of the proletariat.

The apologists of capitalism, together with their shadows in the labour movement, constantly assert that their system is a natural and permanent form of society. On the other hand, the dialect asserts that nothing is permanent and all things perish in time. Such a revolutionary philosophy constitutes a profound threat to the capitalist system and therefore must be discredited at all cost. This explains the daily churning out of anti-Marxist propaganda. But each real step forward in science and knowledge serves to confirm the correctness of the dialectic. For millions of people the growing crisis of capitalism increasingly demonstrates the validity of Marxism. The objective situation is forcing working people to seek a way out of the impasse. ‘Life teaches’, remarked Lenin. Today, to use the famous words of The Communist Manifesto, ‘A spectre is haunting Europe, the spectre of communism.’

In the fight for the emancipation of the working class, Marxism also wages a relentless war against capitalism and its ideology, which defends and justifies its system of exploitation, the “market economy”. But Marxism does more than this. Marxism provides the working class with ‘an integral world outlook irreconcilable with any form of superstition, reaction, or defence of bourgeois oppression.’ (Lenin) It seeks to reveal the real relationships that exist under capitalism and arms the working class with an understanding of how it can achieve its own emancipation. Dialectical materialism, to use the words of the Russian Marxist, Plekhanov, is more than an outlook; it is a ‘philosophy of action.’

The Limits of Formal logic

Men and women attempt to think in a rational manner. Logic (from the Greek logos, meaning word or reason) is the science of the laws of thinking. Whatever thoughts we think, and whatever language they are expressed in, they must satisfy the requirements of reasoning. These requirements give rise to laws of thought, to the principles of logic. It was the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384 – 322BC) more than 2,000 years ago who formulated the present system of formal logic – a system that is the basis of our educational establishments to this very day. He categorized the method of how we should reason correctly and how statements are combined to arrive at judgements, and from them, how conclusions are drawn. He laid down three basic laws of logic: the principle of Identity (A = A), of contradiction (A cannot be A and not-A), and the excluded middle (A is either A or non-A; there is no middle alternative).

Formal logic has held sway for more than two millennia and was the basis of experiment and the great advances of modern science. The development of mathematics was based on this logic. You cannot teach a child to add up without it. One plus one equals two, not three. Formal logic may seem like common sense and is responsible for the execution of a million and one everyday things, but – and this is the big but – it has its limits. When dealing with drawn out processes or complicated events, formal logic becomes a totally inadequate way of thinking. This is particularly the case in dealing with movement, change and contradiction. Formal logic regards things as fixed and motionless. Of course, this is not to deny the everyday usefulness of formal logic, on the contrary; but we need to recognize its limits.

‘The dialectic is neither fiction or mysticism,’ wrote Leon Trotsky, ‘but a science of the forms of our thinking insofar as it is not limited to the daily problems of life but attempts to arrive at an understanding of more complicated and drawn-out processes. The dialectic and formal logic bear a relationship similar to that between higher and lower mathematics.’ (The ABC of Materialist Dialectics)

With the development of modern science, the system of classification (of Linnaeus) was based on formal logic, where all living things were divided into species and orders. This constituted a great leap forward for biology compared to the past. However, it was a fixed and rigid system, with its rigid categories, which over time revealed its limits. Darwin in particular showed that through evolution it was possible for one species to be transformed into another species. Consequently, the rigid system of classification had to be changed to allow for this new understanding of reality.

In effect, the system of formal logic broke down. It could not cope with these contradictions. On the other hand, dialectics – the logic of change – explains that there are no absolute or fixed categories in nature or society. Engels had great fun in pointing to the duck-billed platypus, this transitional form, and asking where it fitted into the rigid scheme of things!

Only dialectical materialism can explain the laws of evolution and change, which sees the world not as a complex of ready-made things, but as a complex of processes, which go through an uninterrupted transformation of coming into being and passing away. For Hegel, the old logic was exactly like a child’s game, which sought to make pictures out of jigsaw pieces. ‘The fundamental flaw in vulgar thought’, wrote Trotsky, ‘lies in the fact that it wishes to content itself with motionless imprints of reality which consists of eternal motion.’

Before we look at the main laws of dialectical materialism, let us take a look at the origins of the materialist outlook.

Materialism versus Idealism

‘The philosophy of Marxism is materialism’, wrote Lenin. Philosophy itself fits into two great ideological camps: materialism and idealism. Before we proceed, even these terms need an explanation. To begin with, materialism and idealism have nothing whatsoever in common with their everyday usage, where materialism is associated with material greed and swindling (in short, the morality of present-day capitalism) and idealism with high ideals and virtue. Far from it!

Philosophical materialism is the outlook which explains that there is only one material world. There is no Heaven or Hell. The universe, which has always existed and is not the creation of any supernatural being, is in the process of constant flux. Human beings are a part of nature, and evolved from lower forms of life, whose origins sprung from a lifeless planet some 3.6 billion or so years ago. With the evolution of life, at a certain stage, came the development of animals with a nervous system, and eventually human beings with a large brain. With humans emerged human thought and consciousness. The human brain alone is capable of producing general ideas, i.e., thinking. Therefore matter, which existed eternally, existed and still exists independently of the mind and human beings. Things existed long before any awareness of them arose or could have arisen on the part of living organisms.

For materialists there is no consciousness apart from the living brain, which is part of a material body. A mind without a body is an absurdity. Matter is not a product of mind, but mind itself is the highest product of matter. Ideas are simply a reflection of the independent material world that surrounds us. Things reflected in a mirror do not depend on this reflection for their existence. ‘All ideas are taken from experience, are reflections – true or distorted – of reality,’ states Engels. Or to use the words of Marx, ‘Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life.’

Marxists do not deny that mind, consciousness, thought, will, feeling and sensation are real. What materialists deny is that the thing called “the mind” exists separately from the body. Mind is not distinct from the body. Thinking is the product of the brain, which is the organ of thought.

Yet this does not mean that our consciousness is a lifeless mirror of nature. Human beings relate to their surroundings; they are aware of their surroundings and react accordingly; in turn, the environment reacts back upon them. While rooted in material conditions, human beings generalize and think creatively. They in turn change their material surroundings.

On the other hand, philosophical idealism states that the material world is not real but is simply the reflection of the world of ideas. There are different forms of idealism, but all essentially explain that ideas are primary and matter, if it exists at all, secondary. For the idealists, ideas are dissevered from matter, from nature. This is Hegel’s conception of the Absolute Idea or what amounts to God. Philosophical idealism opens the road, in one way or another, to the defence of or support for religion and superstition. Not only is this outlook false, it is also profoundly conservative, leading us to the pessimistic conclusion that we can never understand the “mysterious ways” of the world. Whereas materialism understands that human beings not only observe the real world, but can change it, and in doing so, change themselves.

The idealist view of the world grew out of the division of labour between physical and mental labour. This division constituted an enormous advance as it freed a section of society from physical work and allowed them the time to develop science and technology. However, the further removed from physical labour, the more abstract became their ideas. And when thinkers separate their ideas from the real world, they become increasingly consumed by abstract “pure thought” and end up with all types of fantasies. Today, cosmology is dominated by complex abstract mathematical conceptions, which have led to all sorts of weird and wonderful erroneous theories: the Big Bang, beginning of time, parallel universes, etc. Every break with practice leads to a one-sided idealism.

The materialist outlook has a long history stretching back to the ancient Greeks of Anaxagoras (c.500 – 428 BC) and Democritus (c.460 – c.370 BC). With the collapse of Ancient Greece, this rational outlook was cut across for a whole historical epoch, and only after the reawakening of thought following the demise of the Christian Middle Ages was there a revival of philosophy and natural science. From the seventeenth century, the home of modern materialism was England. ‘The real progenitor of English materialism is Bacon,’ wrote Marx. The materialism of Francis Bacon (1561 – 1626) was then systemized and developed by Thomas Hobbes (1588 – 1679), whose ideas were in turn developed by John Locke (1632 – 1704). The latter already thought it possible that matter could possess the faculty of thinking. It is no accident that these advances in human thought coincided with the rise of the bourgeoisie and great advances in science, particularly mechanics, astronomy and medicine. These great thinkers in turn provided the breakthrough for the brilliant school of French materialists of the eighteenth century, most notably René Descartes (1596 – 1650).

It was their materialism and rationalism that became the creed of the Great French Revolution of 1789. These revolutionary thinkers recognized no external authority. Everything from religion to natural science, from society to political institutions, was subjected to the most searching criticism. Reason became the measure of everything.

This materialist philosophy, consistently championed by Holbach (1723 – 1789) and Helvetius, was a revolutionary philosophy. ‘The universe is the vast unity of everything that is, everywhere it shows us only matter in movement,’ states Holbach. ‘This is all that there is and it displays only an infinite and continuous chain of causes and actions; some of these causes we know, since they immediately strike our senses; others we do not know since they act on us only by means of consequences, quite remote from first causes.’

This rational philosophy was an ideological reflection of the revolutionary bourgeoisie’s struggle against the church, the aristocracy and the absolute monarchy. It represented a fierce attack on the ideology of the Old Order. In the end, the kingdom of Reason became nothing more than the idealized kingdom of the bourgeoisie. Bourgeois property became one of the essential rights of man. The revolutionary materialists paved the way for the new bourgeois society and the domination of new private property forms. ‘Different times, different circumstances, a different philosophy,’ stated Denis Diderot (1713 – 1784).

The new materialism, although a revolutionary advance, tended to be very rigid and mechanical. These new philosophers attacked the church and denied the self-sufficiency of the soul and held that man was simply a material body as all other animals and inorganic bodies. Man was regarded as a more complex and more delicate mechanism than other bodies. According to La Mettrie (1709 – 1751) in his principal work Man the Machine, ‘We are instruments endowed with feeling and memory.’

For the French materialists the origin of knowledge – the discovery of objective truth – lay through the action of nature on our senses. The planets and man’s place within the solar system and nature itself was fixed. For them, it was a clockwork world, where everything had its logical static place, and where the impulse for movement came from outside. The whole approach, while materialist, was mechanical, and failed to grasp the living reality of the world. It could not grasp the universe as a process, as matter undergoing continuous change. This weakness led to the false dichotomy between the material world and the world of ideas. And this dualism opened the door to idealism.

Others held to a monist view that the universe was one system which was not pure spirit or pure matter. Spinoza was the first to work out such a system. While he saw the need for a God, the universe was one system, which was wholly material from end to end.

Dialectics and Metaphysics

The Marxist view of the world is not only materialist, but also dialectical. For its critics, the dialectic is portrayed as something totally mystical, and therefore irrelevant. But this is certainly not the case. The dialectical method is simply an attempt to understand more clearly our real interdependent world. Dialectics, states Engels in Anti-Dühring, ‘is nothing more than the science of the general laws of motion and development of nature, human society and thought.’ Put simply, it is the logic of motion.

It is obvious to most people that we do not live in a static world. In fact, everything in nature is in a state of constant change. ‘Motion is the mode of existence of matter,’ states Engels. ‘Never anywhere has there been matter without motion, nor can there be.’ The earth revolves continually around its axis, and in turn itself revolves around the sun. This results in day and night, and the different seasons that we experience throughout the year. We are born, grow up, grow old and eventually die. Everything is moving, changing, either rising and developing or declining and dying away. Any equilibrium is only relative, and only has meaning in relation to other forms of motion.

‘When we consider and reflect upon nature at large or the history of mankind or our own intellectual activity, at first we see the picture of an endless entanglement of relations and reactions, permutations and combinations, in which nothing remains what, where, and as it was, but everything moves, changes, comes into being, and passes away,’ remarks Engels. ‘We see, therefore, at first the picture as a whole, with its individual parts still more or less kept in the background; we observe the movements, transitions, connections rather than the things that move, combine, and are connected. This primitive, naïve but intrinsically correct conception of the world is that of ancient Greek philosophy, and was first clearly formulated by Heraclitus: everything is and is not, for everything is fluid, is constantly changing, constantly coming into being and passing away.’

The Greeks made a whole series of revolutionary discoveries and advances in natural science. Anaximander made a map of the world, and wrote a book on cosmology, from which only a few fragments survive. The Antikythera mechanism, as it is called, appears to be the remains of a clockwork planetarium dating back to the first century BC. Given the limited knowledge of the time, many were anticipations and inspired guesses. Under slave society, these brilliant inventions could not be put to productive use and were simply regarded as playthings for amusement. The real advances in natural science took place in the mid-fifteenth century. The new methods of investigation meant the division of nature into its individual parts, allowing objects and processes to be classified. While this provided massive amount of data, objects were analyzed in isolation and not in their living environment. This produced a narrow, rigid, metaphysical mode of thought that has become the hallmark of empiricism. “The Facts” became the all important feature. ‘Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life,’ states the Dickensian character Thomas Gradgrind in Hard Times.

‘To the metaphysician things and their mental reflexes, ideas, are isolated, are to be considered one after the other and apart from each other, are objects of investigation, fixed, rigid, given once and for all’, states Engels. ‘He thinks in absolutely irreconcilable antitheses. His communication is “yea, yea; nay, nay”; for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.’ For him a thing either exists or does not exist; a thing cannot at the same time be itself and something else. Positive and negative absolutely exclude one another; cause and effect stand in rigid antithesis one to another.

‘At first sight this mode of thinking seems to us very luminous, because it is that of so-called sound common sense. Only sound common sense, respectable fellow that he is, in the homely realm of his own four walls, has very wonderful adventures directly he ventures out into the wide world of research. And the metaphysical mode of thought, justifiable and necessary as it is in a number of domains whose extent varies according to the nature of the particular object of investigation, sooner or later reaches a limit beyond which it becomes one-sided, restricted, abstract, lost in insoluble contradictions. In the contemplation of individual things it forgets the connection between them; in the contemplation of their existence it forgets the beginning and the end of that existence; of their repose, it forgets their motion. It cannot see the wood for the trees.’

Engels goes on to explain that for everyday purposes we know whether an animal is alive or not. But upon closer examination, we are forced to recognize that is not a simple straightforward question. On the contrary, it is a complex question. There are raging debates even today as to when life begins in the mothers’ womb. Likewise, it is just as difficult to say when the exact moment of death occurs, as physiology proves that death is not a single instantaneous act, but a protracted process. In the brilliant words of the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, ‘It is the same thing in us that is living and dead, asleep and awake, young and old; each changes place and becomes the other. We step and we do not step into the same stream; we are and we are not.’ Not everything is as appears on the surface of things. Every species, every aspect of organic life, is every moment the same and not the same. It develops by assimilating matter from without and simultaneously discards other unwanted matter; continually some cells die, while others are renewed. Over time, the body is completely transformed, renewed from top to bottom. Therefore, every organic entity is both itself and yet something other than itself.

This phenomenon cannot be explained by metaphysical thought or formal logic. This approach is incapable of explaining contradiction. This contradictory reality does not enter the realm of common sense reasoning. Dialectics, on the other hand, comprehends things in their connection, development, and motion. As far as Engels was concerned, ‘Nature is the proof of dialectics.’

Here is how Engels described the rich processes of change in his book the Dialectics of Nature:

‘Matter moves in an eternal cycle, completing its trajectory in a period so vast that in comparison with it our earthly year is as nothing; in a cycle in which the period of highest development, namely the period of organic life with its crowning achievement – self-consciousness – is a space just as comparatively minute in the history of life and self-consciousness; in a cycle in which every particular form of the existence of matter – be it the sun or a nebular, a particular animal or animal-species, a chemical combination or decomposition – is equally in transition; in a cycle in which nothing is eternal, except eternally changing, eternally moving matter and the laws of its movement and change. But however often and pitilessly this cycle may be accomplished in time and space, however many countless suns and earths may arise and fall, however long it may be necessary to wait until in some solar system, on some planet appear conditions suitable for organic life, however many countless beings may fall and rise before, out of their midst, develop animals with a thinking brain that find an environment that permits them to live, be it even only for a short period, we are, nevertheless, assured that matter in all its changes remains eternally one and the same, that not one of its attributes may perish, and that that same iron necessity which compels the destruction of the highest early bloom of matter – the thinking spirit – also necessitates its rebirth at some other place, at some other time.’

Along with, and following the French philosophy of the eighteenth century, arose a new radical German philosophy. Through Emmanuel Kant, the culmination of this philosophy was epitomized by the system of George F. Hegel, who had greatly admired the French Revolution. Hegel, although an idealist, was the most encyclopaedic mind of his age. The great contribution of this genius was the rescuing of the dialectical mode of thought originally developed by the ancient Greek philosophers some 2,000 years before.

‘Changes in being consist not only in the fact that one quantity passes into another quantity, but also that quality passes into quantity, and vice versa,’ wrote Hegel. ‘Each transition of the latter kind represents an interruption, and gives the phenomenon a new aspect, qualitatively distinct from the previous one. Thus water when cooled grows hard, not gradually… but all at once; having already cooled to freezing-point, it can still remain a liquid only if preserves a tranquil condition, and then the slightest shock is sufficient for it suddenly to become hard… In the world of moral phenomena… there take place the same changes of quantitative into qualitative, and differences in qualities there also are founded upon quantitative differences. Thus, a little less, a little more constitutes that limit beyond which frivolity ceases and there appears something quite different, crime…’ (Science of Logic)

Hegel’s works are full of references and examples of dialectics. Unfortunately, Hegel was not only an idealist, but wrote in the most obscure and abstruse fashion imaginable, making his works very difficult to read. Lenin, while re-reading Hegel in exile during the First World War, wrote: ‘I am in general trying to read Hegel materialistically: Hegel is materialism which has been stood on its head (according to Engels) – that is to say, I cast aside for the most part God, the Absolute, the Pure Idea, etc.’ Lenin was greatly impressed by Hegel, and, despite his idealism, later recommended that young communists study his writings for themselves.

The young Marx and Engels were followers of the great Hegel. They learned a colossal amount from this teacher. He opened their eyes to a new outlook on the world epitomized by the dialectic. By embracing the dialectic, Hegel freed history from metaphysics. For the dialectic, there is nothing final, absolute, or sacred. It reveals the transitory character of everything. However, Hegel was limited by his knowledge, the knowledge of his age, and the fact he was an idealist. He regarded thoughts within the brain not as more or less abstract pictures of real things and processes, but as realizations of the “Absolute Idea”, existing from eternity. Hegel’s idealism turned reality on its head.

Nevertheless, Hegel systematically outlined the important laws of change, touched upon earlier.

The Law of Quantity into Quality (and vice versa)

‘It has been said that there are no sudden leaps in nature, and it is a common notion that things have their origin through gradual increase or decrease,’ states Hegel. ‘But there is also such a thing as sudden transformation from quantity to quality. For example, water does not become gradually hard on cooling, becoming first pulpy and ultimately attaining a rigidity of ice, but turns hard at once. If temperature be lowered to a certain degree, the water is suddenly changed into ice, i.e., the quantity – the number of degrees of temperature – is transformed into quality – a change in the nature of the thing.’ (Logic)

This is the cornerstone of understanding change. Change or evolution does not take place gradually in a straight smooth line. Marx compared the social revolution to an old mole burrowing busily beneath the ground, invisible for long periods, but steadily undermining the old order and later emerging into the light in a sudden overturn. Even Charles Darwin believed that his theory of evolution was essentially gradual and that the gaps in the fossil record did not represent any breaks or leaps in evolution, and would be ‘filled in’ by further discoveries. In this Darwin was wrong. Today, new theories, essentially dialectical, have been put forward to explain the leaps in evolution. Stephen J. Gould and Niles Eldredge termed their dialectical theory of evolution ‘punctuated equilibria’. They explained that there were long periods of evolution where there were no apparent changes taking place, then suddenly, a new life form or forms emerged. In other words, quantitative differences gave rise to a qualitative change, leading to new species. The whole of development is characterized by breaks in continuity, leaps, catastrophes and revolutions.

The emergence of single-cellular life in the earth’s oceans some 3.6 billion years ago was a qualitative leap in the evolution of matter. The “Cambrian explosion”, some 600 million years ago, where complex multicellular life with hard parts exploded onto the scene was a further qualitative leap forward in evolution. In the lower Palaeozoic, some 400 to 500 million years ago, the first vertebrate fish emerged. This revolutionary design became dominant and advanced through the amphibians (which lived both in water and on land), through reptiles, and finally branched off into warm-blooded creatures: birds and mammals. Such revolutionary leaps culminated in human beings that have the capacity to think. Evolution is a long process whereby an accumulation of changes inside and outside the organism leads to a leap, a qualitatively higher state of development.

Just as colossal subterranean pressures accumulate and periodically break through the earth’s crust in the form of earthquakes, so gradual changes in the consciousness of workers lead to an explosion in the class struggle. A strike in a factory is not caused by outside “agitators”, but is produced by an accumulation of changes within the factory that finally pushes the workforce to strike. The “cause” of the strike maybe something quite small and incidental, a tea-break for instance, but it has become “the last straw that breaks the camel’s back”, to use a popular (dialectical) expression. It has become the catalyst whereby quantity changes into quality.

Today, a whole series of left wing electoral victories within the British trade unions are a product of a long accumulation of discontent within the union rank and file. Twenty years of bitter attacks on the working class has resulted in these changes at the top of the trade unions. Only those armed with a Marxist philosophy could foresee this development, which is rooted in the changing objective situation. These changes of mood, which are already taking place in the trade unions, will inevitably be reflected within the Labour Party at a certain stage that will result in the demise of the right wing under Blair. The ultra-lefts on the fringes of the Labour movement have continually written off the Labour Party as something that could never be changed. They are incapable of thinking dialectically, and have an empirical and formalistic outlook that only sees the surface of reality.

They fail to draw a distinction between appearance and reality – between the immediate appearance evident to observation and the hidden processes, interconnections and laws that underlie the observed facts. In other words, they are blind to the subterranean processes taking place before their very eyes. ‘Blairism dominates the Labour Party!’ they exclaim and throw up their hands in despair. They are under the spell of formal logic, and do not understand the process at work that will inevitably undermine Blairism, and lead to its collapse, as night follows day. As they wrote off the right wing unions in the past, they write off the Labour Party today. On the basis of events and the pressures of the leftward moving trade union movement, the Labour Party, given its roots in the trade unions, will inevitably move in a similar direction.

Marx stressed that the task of science is always to proceed from the immediate knowledge of appearances to the discovery of reality, of the essence, of the laws underlying the appearances. Marx’s Capital is a fine example of this method. ‘The way of thinking of the vulgar economists’, wrote Marx to Engels, ‘derives from the fact that it is always only the immediate form in which relationships appear which is reflected in the brain, and not their inner connections.’ (June 27, 1867)

The same could be said of those who in the past wrote off the Soviet Union as “state capitalist”. Stalinism had nothing in common with socialism; it was a repressive regime, where workers had less rights than in the west. However, instead of a scientific analysis of the Soviet Union, they simply pronounced it state capitalist. As Trotsky explained, the theorists of state capitalism looked at the USSR through the eyes of formal logic. It was either-or, black or white. The USSR was either a wonderful socialist state, as the Stalinists said, or it must be a (state) capitalist state. Such thinking is pure formalism. They never understood the possibility of a degeneration of the workers’ state into a chronically deformed variant of proletarian rule, as explained by Trotsky. It is clear that the revolution, due to its isolation in a backward country, went through a process of degeneration. However, while the nationalized planned economy remained, not everything was lost. The bureaucracy was not a new ruling class, but a parasitic growth on the state, which usurped political power. Only a new political revolution could eliminate the bureaucracy and reintroduce soviets and workers’ democracy.

The supporters of state capitalism tied themselves in knots, confusing counterrevolution with revolution and vice versa. In Afghanistan, they supported the reactionary fundamentalist mujahedeen as “freedom fighters” against Russian “imperialism”. With the collapse of the USSR and the move to restore capitalism from 1991 onwards, they remained neutral in face of real capitalist counterrevolution.

The Unity of Opposites

‘The contradiction, however, is the source of all movement and life; only in so far as it contains a contradiction can anything have movement, power, and effect.’ (Hegel). ‘In brief’, states Lenin, ‘dialectics can be defined as the doctrine of the unity of opposites. This embodies the essence of dialectics…’

The world in which we live is a unity of contradictions or a unity of opposites: cold-heat, light-darkness, Capital-Labour, birth-death, riches-poverty, positive-negative, boom-slump, thinking-being, finite-infinite, repulsion-attraction, left-right, above-below, evolution-revolution, chance-necessity, sale-purchase, and so on.

The fact that two poles of a contradictory antithesis can manage to coexist as a whole is regarded in popular wisdom as a paradox. The paradox is a recognition that two contradictory, or opposite, considerations may both be true. This is a reflection in thought of a unity of opposites in the material world.

Motion, space and time are nothing else but the mode of existence of matter. Motion, as we have explained is a contradiction, – being in one place and another at the same time. It is a unity of opposites. ‘Movement means to be in this place and not to be in it; this is the continuity of space and time – and it is this which first makes motion possible.’ (Hegel)

To understand something, its essence, it is necessary to seek out these internal contradictions. Under certain circumstances, the universal is the individual, and the individual is the universal. That things turn into their opposites, – cause can become effect and effect can become cause – is because they are merely links in the never-ending chain in the development of matter.

‘The negative is to an equal extent positive,’ states Hegel. Dialectical thought is ‘comprehending the antithesis in its unity.’ In fact Hegel goes further: ‘Contradiction is the root of all movement and vitality, and it is only insofar as it contains a Contradiction that anything moves and has impulse and activity…Something moves, not because it is here at one point of time and there at another, but because at one and the same point of time it is here and not here, and in this here both is and is not. We must grant the old dialecticians the contradictions which they prove in motion; but what follows is not that there is no motion, but rather that motion is existent Contradiction itself.’ Therefore for Hegel, something is living insofar as it contains contradiction, which provides it with self-movement.

The Greek atomists first advanced the revolutionary theory that the material world was made up of atoms, considered the smallest unit of matter. The Greek word atomos means indivisible. This was a brilliant intuitive guess. Twentieth century science proved that everything was composed of atoms, although it was subsequently discovered that even smaller particles existed. Every atom contains a nucleus at its centre, composed of sub-atomic particles called protons and neutrons. Orbiting around the nucleus are particles known as electrons. All protons carry a positive electrical charge, and would therefore repel each other, but they are bound together by a type of energy known as the strong nuclear force. This shows that everything that exists is based on a unity of opposites and has self-movement of ‘impulse and activity’, to use Hegel’s words.

In humans, the level of blood sugar is essential for life. Too high a level is likely to result in diabetic coma, too little and the person is incapable of eating. This safe level is regulated by the rate at which sugar is released into the bloodstream by the digestion of carbohydrates, the rate at which stored glycogen, fat or protein is converted into sugar, and the rate at which sugar is removed and utilized. If the blood sugar level rises, then the rate of utilization is increased by the release of more insulin from the pancreas. If it falls, more sugar is released into the blood, or the person gets hungry and consumes a source of sugar. In this self-regulation of opposing forces, of positive and negative feedbacks, the blood level is kept within tolerable limits.

Lenin explains this self-movement in a note when he says, ‘Dialectics is the teaching which shows how opposites can be and how they become identical – under what conditions they are identical, becoming transformed into one another – why the human mind should grasp these opposites not as dead, rigid, but living, conditional, mobile, becoming transformed into one another.’

Lenin also laid great stress on the importance of contradiction as the motive force of development. ‘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.’ (Lenin, Three Sources and Component Parts of Marxism).

This is best illustrated by the class struggle. Capitalism requires a capitalist class and a working class. The struggle over the surplus value created by the workers and expropriated by the capitalists leads to an irreconcilable struggle that will provide the basis for the eventual overthrow of capitalism, and the resolution of the contradiction through the abolition of classes.

The Negation of the Negation

The general pattern of historical development is not one of a straight line upward, but of a complex interaction in which each step forward is only achieved at the cost of a partial step backwards. These regressions, in turn, are remedied at the next stage of development.

The law of the negation of the negation explains the repetition at a higher level of certain features and properties of the lower level and the apparent return of past features. There is a constant struggle between form and content and between content and form, resulting in the eventual shattering of the old form and the transformation of the content.

This whole process can be best pictured as a spiral, where the movement comes back to the position it started, but at a higher level. In other words, historical progress is achieved through a series of contradictions. Where the previous stage is negated, this does not represent its total elimination. It does not wipe out completely the stage that it supplants.

‘The capitalist method of appropriation, which springs from the capitalist method of production, and therefore capitalist private property, is the first negation of individual private property based on one’s own labour. But capitalist production begets with the inevitableness of a natural process its own negation. It is the negation of the negation,’ remarked Marx in volume one of Capital.

Engels explains a whole series of examples to illustrate the negation of the negation in his book Anti-Dühring. ‘Let us take a grain of barley. Millions of such grains of barley are milled, boiled and brewed and then consumed. But if such a grain of barley meets with conditions which for it are normal, if it falls on suitable soil, then under the influence of heat and moisture a specific change takes place, it germinates; the grain as such ceases to exist, it is negated, and in its place appears the plant which has arisen from it, the negation of the grain. But what is the normal life-process of this plant? It grows, flowers, is fertilized and finally once more produces grains of barley, and, as soon as these have ripened, the stalk dies, is in its turn negated. As a result of this negation of the negation we have once again the original grain of barley, but not as a single unit, but ten, twenty or thirty fold.’

The barley lives and evolves by means of returning to its starting point – but at a higher level. One seed has produced many. Also over time, plants have evolved qualitatively as well as quantitatively. Successive generations have shown variations, and become more adapted to their environment.

Engels gives a further example from the insect world. ‘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.’

Hegel and Marx

Hegel, who had a giant intellect, illuminated a great many things. It was a debt that Marx repeatedly recognized. ‘The mystification which dialectic suffers in Hegel’s hands, by no means prevents him from being the first to present its general form of working in a comprehensive and conscious manner,’ states Marx. Nevertheless, Hegel’s philosophical system was a huge miscarriage. It suffered from an incurable internal contradiction. Hegel’s conception of history is an evolutionary one, where there is nothing final or eternal. However, his system laid claim to being the absolute truth, in complete contradiction to the laws of dialectical thought. While Hegel defended the status quo in Germany, the dialectic embraced a revolutionary view of constant change. For Hegel, all that was real was rational. But using the Hegelian dialectic, all that is real will become irrational. All that exists deserves to perish. In this lay the revolutionary significance of the Hegelian philosophy.

The solution of this contradiction led back to materialism, but not the old mechanical materialism, but one based upon the new sciences and advances. ‘Materialism rose again enriched by all the acquisitions of idealism. The most important of these acquisitions was the dialectical method, the examination of phenomena in their development, in their origin and destruction. The genius who represented this new direction of thought was Karl Marx,’ writes Plekhanov. Spurred on by revolutionary developments in Europe in 1830-31, the Hegelian School split into left, right and centre.

The most prominent representative of the Hegelian Left was Ludwig Feuerbach who challenged the old orthodoxy, especially religion, and placed materialism at the centre of things again. ‘Nature has no beginning and no end. Everything in it is in mutual interaction, everything at once effect and cause, everything in it is all-sided and reciprocal…’ writes Feuerbach, adding that there is no place there for God. ‘Christians tear out the spirit, the soul, of man out of his body and make this torn-out, disembodied spirit into their God.’ Despite Feuerbach’s limitations, Marx and Engels welcomed the new breakthrough with enthusiasm.

‘But in the meantime’, noted Engels, ‘the Revolution of 1848 thrust the whole of philosophy aside as unceremoniously as Feuerbach himself was also pushed into the background.’ It was left to Marx and Engels to consistently apply the dialectic to the new materialism, producing dialectical materialism. For them, the new philosophy was not an abstract philosophy, but directly linked to practice.

‘Dialectics reduces itself to the science of the general laws of motion, both of the external world and of human thought – two sets of laws which are identical in substance, but differ in their expression in so far as the human mind can apply them consciously, while in nature and also up to now for the most part in human history, these laws assert themselves unconsciously, in the form of external necessity, in the midst of an endless series of seeming accidents.’ (Engels)

Neither Marx nor Engels left behind them a comprehensive book on dialectics as such. Marx was preoccupied with Capital. Engels intended to write such a book, but was overtaken by the need to complete Capital after Marx’s death. He nevertheless wrote quite extensively on the subject, especially in Anti-Dühring and the Dialectics of Nature. Lenin commentated, ‘If Marx did not leave behind him a ‘Logic’ (with a capital letter), he did leave the logic of Capital, and this ought to be utilized to the full. In Capital, Marx applied to a single science logic, dialectics and the theory of knowledge of materialism (three words are not needed: it is one and the same thing) which has taken everything valuable in Hegel and developed it further.’

Today, a small number of scientists, mainly from the natural sciences, have become conscious of the dialectic, which has opened their eyes to problems in their specialized fields. This relationship between science and dialectical materialism has been fully discussed in the book by Alan Woods and Ted Grant Reason in Revolt. They showed, along with Engels, that nature is completely dialectical. Apart from Stephen J. Gould and Niles Eldredge, Richard Levins and Richard Lewontin, who regard themselves as dialectical materialists, have also written about the application of the dialectic to the field of biology in their book The Dialectical Biologist:

‘What characterizes the dialectical world, in all its aspects, as we have described it is that it is constantly in motion. Constants become variables, causes become effects, and systems develop, destroying the conditions that gave rise to them. Even elements that appear to be stable are in a dynamic equilibrium of forces that can suddenly become unbalanced, as when a dull grey lump of metal of a critical size becomes a fireball brighter than a thousand suns. Yet the motion is not unconstrained and uniform. Organisms develop and differentiate, then die and disintegrate. Species arise but inevitably become extinct. Even in the simple physical world we know of no uniform motion. Even the earth rotating on its axis has slowed down in geological time. The development of systems through time, then, seems to be the consequence of opposing forces and opposing motions.

‘This appearance of opposing forces has given rise to the most debated and difficult, yet the most central, concept in dialectical thought, the principle of contradiction. For some, contradiction is an epistemic principle only. It describes how we come to understand the world by a history of antithetical theories that, in contradiction to each other and in contradiction to observed phenomena, lead to a new view of nature. Kuhn’s (1962) theory of scientific revolution has some of this flavour of continual contradiction and resolution, giving way to new contradiction. For others, contradiction becomes an ontological property at least of human social existence. For us, contradiction is not only epistemic and political, but also ontological in the broadest sense. Contradictions between forces are everywhere in nature, not only in human social institutions. This tradition of dialectics goes back to Engels (1880) who wrote, in Dialectics of Nature, that “to me there could be no question of building the laws of dialectics of nature, but of discovering them in it and evolving them from it.”’ (The Dialectical Biologist, p.279)

Marxists have always stressed the unity of theory and practice. ‘Philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it’, as Marx pointed to in his thesis on Feuerbach. ‘If the truth is abstract it must be untrue,’ states Hegel. All truth is concrete. We have to look at things as they exist, with a view to understanding their underlying contradictory development. This has very important conclusions, especially for those fighting to change society. Unlike the Utopian socialists who viewed socialism as a wonderful idea, Marxists see the development of socialism as arising out of the contradictions of capitalism. Capitalist society has prepared the material basis for a classless society with its highly developed productive forces and its world division of labour. It has brought into being the working class, whose very life existence brings it into conflict with capitalism. On the basis of experience, it will become fully conscious of its position in society and it will be transformed, in the words of Marx, from a ‘class in-itself’ to a ‘class for-itself’.

Dialectics bases itself on determinism, but this has nothing in common with fatalism which denies the existence of accident in nature, society and thought. Dialectical determinism asserts the unity of necessity and accident, and explains that necessity expresses itself through accident. All events have causes, necessary events and accidental ones alike. If there were no causal laws in nature everything would be in a state of utter chaos. It would be an impossible position where nothing could exist. So everything is dependent upon everything else, as in a continuous chain of cause and effect. Particular events always have a chance or accidental character, but these arise only as the result of a deeper necessity. In fact, necessity manifests itself through a series of accidents. Without doubt, accidents have their place, but the essential thing is to discover what laws determine this deeper necessity.

From the point of view of superficial observation, everything may appear to be accidental or open to chance. This can appear especially so when we have no knowledge of the laws that govern change and their interconnections. ‘Where on the surface accident holds sway, there actually it is always governed by inner, hidden laws and it is only a matter of discovering these laws,’ remarked Engels in Ludwig Feuerbach.

In nature, the evolution of matter follows a certain path, although how, when, and in what form this is realized, depends upon accidental circumstances. For example, whether life was created or not on earth depended on a whole series of accidental factors, such as the presence of water, different chemical elements, the earth’s distance from the sun, an atmosphere, etc. ‘It is the nature of matter to advance to the evolution of thinking beings’, states Engels, ‘hence, too, this always necessarily occurs whenever the conditions for it (not necessarily identical at all places and times) are present…what is maintained to be necessary is composed of sheer accidents, and the so-called accidental is the form behind which necessity hides itself.’

Superficial historians have written that the First World War was ‘caused’ by the assassination of a Crown Prince at Sarajevo. To a Marxist this event was an historical accident, in the sense that this chance event served as the pretext, or catalyst, for the world conflict which had already been made inevitable by the economic, political and military contradictions of imperialism. If the assassin had missed, or if the Crown Prince had never been born, the war would still have taken place, on some other diplomatic pretext or other. Necessity would have expressed itself through a different ‘accident’.

In the words of Hegel, everything which exists, exists of necessity. But, equally, everything which exists is doomed to perish, to be transformed into something else. Thus what is ‘necessary’ in one time and place becomes ‘unnecessary’ in another. Everything begets its opposite, which is destined to overcome and negate it. This is true of individual living things as much as societies and nature generally.

Every type of human society exists because it is necessary at the given time when it arises: ‘No social order ever disappears before all the productive forces for which there is room in it, have been developed: and new higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society. Therefore mankind always takes up only such problems as it can solve, since, looking at the matter more closely, we will always find that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions necessary for its solution already exist or at least are in the process of formation.’ (Marx, Critique of Political Economy.)

Slavery, in its day, represented an enormous leap forward over barbarism. It was a necessary stage in the development of productive forces, culture and human society. As Hegel brilliantly explained it, ‘It is not so much from slavery as through slavery that man becomes free.’

Similarly capitalism was originally a necessary and progressive stage in human society. However, like primitive communism, slavery, and feudalism, capitalism has long since ceased to represent a necessary and progressive social system. It has foundered upon the deep contradictions inherent in it, and is doomed to be overcome by the rising forces of the new society within the old, represented by the modem proletariat. Private ownership of the means of production and the nation state, the basic features of capitalist society, which originally marked a great step forward, now serve only to fetter and undermine the productive forces and threaten all the gains made in centuries of human development.

Capitalism is now a thoroughly degenerate social system, which must be overthrown and replaced by its opposite, socialism, if human culture is to survive. Marxism is determinist, but not fatalist. Men and women make history. The transformation of society can only be achieved by men and women consciously striving for their own emancipation. This struggle of the classes is not pre-determined. Who succeeds depends on many factors, and a rising, progressive class has many advantages over the old, decrepit force of reaction. But ultimately, the result must depend upon which side has the stronger will, the greater organization and the most skilful and resolute leadership.

The victory of socialism will mark a new and qualitatively different stage of human history. To be more accurate it will mark the end of the prehistory of the human race, and start a real history.

However, on the other hand, socialism marks a return to the earliest form of human society – tribal communism – but on a much higher level, which stands upon all the enormous gains of thousands of years of class society. The negation of primitive communism by class society is in turn negated by socialism. The economy of superabundance will be made possible by the application of conscious planning to the industry, science and technique established by capitalism, on a world scale. This in turn will once and for all make redundant the division of labour, the difference between mental and manual labour, between town and countryside, and the wasteful and barbaric class struggle and enable the human race at last to set its resources to the conquest of nature: to use Engels’ famous phrase, ‘the leap of man from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom’.

 (b)   Introduction to the ABC of Materialist Dialectics


Rob Sewell

April 18, 1994.

Over the past period, especially since the collapse of the Berlin Wall, there has been a systematic and vitriolic attack on the ideas of Marxism. From the citadels of higher learning to the pulpit, from free market institutes to the gutter press, a deafening torrent has rained down on the Marxist viewpoint. In order to confuse and disorient the class conscious worker, nothing is spared by the arch defenders of capitalism to discredit scientific socialism. But given that capitalism has meant the return of mass unemployment and the social ills of the inter-war period, a layer of workers and youth are searching for answers to their problems. Increasingly they are driven by the harsh realities of life under capitalism to look for a way out.

Marxism offers thinking workers and youth a clear understanding of society and their place within it. It offers them a new world outlook. It offers them a future. In the words of Lenin, ‘The Marxian doctrine is omnipotent because it is true. It is complete and harmonious, and provides men with an integral world conception which is irreconcilable with any form of superstition, reaction or defence of bourgeois oppression.’(The Three Sources and Three Component Parts of Marxism). The theories of Marxism provide workers with a clear understanding – a thread which is capable of taking him through the confused labyrinth of events, of the turmoil of the class struggle and the complexities of capitalist society.

Marxism was not simply plucked ready-made from Marx’s head. Its theories represented a great development of the teachings of the greatest representatives of philosophy, economic thought and socialism. In essence, it was the fusion of German philosophy, English classic economic theory, and the best of French socialism. This combination provided the basis for a revolution in understanding. It was the birth of a new world outlook, enriched and deepened by the historical experience of the working class. It transformed the various trends of utopian socialism into a scientific socialism rooted in society and the class struggle.

Trotsky’s ‘ABC of Materialist Dialectics’ is a brilliant short explanation of Marxist philosophy. It was written as part of a defence of Marxism against a middle class revisionist tendency in the American Trotskyist movement in the late 1930s, which attempted to challenge its basic principles. (See Trotsky’s In Defence of Marxism). As opposed to pragmatism and empiricism, Trotsky defended dialectical materialism as a richer, fuller, more comprehensive view of society and life in general.

He explained that the dialectic ‘is the logic of evolution. Just as a machine shop in a plant supplies instruments for all departments, so logic is indispensable for all spheres of human knowledge… I know of two systems of logic worthy of attention: the logic of Aristotle (formal logic) and the logic of Hegel (the dialectic).’

The ancient Greeks, more than 2,000 years ago, made an outstanding contribution to the development of human thought. They sought to understand the universe, society and man’s place within it. As Engels explained, ‘The ancient Greek philosophers were all natural-born dialecticians and Aristotle, the most encyclopaedic intellect among them, had even already analyzed the most essential forms of dialectical thought.’ They began to see things not as fixed and lifeless, but in their real development and movement. In Heraclitus’s words: ‘Everything is and is not, for everything is in flux, is constantly changing, constantly coming into being and passing away.’ This graphic description is the basic core of dialectics. This corresponded to Engels’ view: ‘For dialectical philosophy 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 passing away, of endless ascendancy from the lower to the higher.’ (Anti-Dühring).

For the Greeks, however, dialectical thought was simply an anticipation. Their major contribution, especially Aristotle, was the development of formal logic, which has held sway for more than two thousand years. Its three basic laws are: law of identity (a thing is always equal to itself, or A equals A); law of contradiction (if a thing is always identical with itself, it cannot be different from itself, or if A equals A, it can never equal non-A); law of excluded middle (everything must be either one of two things; when two opposing statements confront one another, both cannot be true or false; the correctness of one implies the incorrectness of its contrary). These inseparable laws, which were deduced from argument, were the axioms of Aristotle’s system of thought.

This conception of reasoning was a huge leap for human thought and understanding and is the basis for our day to day perceptions. On this everyday level, we assume things are static and motionless. And from this point of view, formal logic serves us well. Dialectical understanding, on the other hand, ‘is not limited to the daily problems of life but attempts to arrive at an understanding of more complicated and drawn-out processes.’ (Trotsky).

For everyday purposes and simple calculations, formal logic, or “common sense” is sufficient. It has its limits, however, and beyond these the application of “common sense” turns truth into its opposite. At bottom, it is incapable of appreciating change and attempts to rid itself of all contradictions (which are inherent in change). If we attempt to understand more than ‘everyday things’, then formal (or vulgar) logic becomes completely inadequate. ‘The fundamental flaw of vulgar thought lies in the fact that it wishes to content itself with motionless imprints of a reality which consists of eternal motion.’ (Trotsky). For everyday purposes, it is possible to say whether a thing is alive or dead. But in reality it is not so simple. At what point is it dead? At what point did life begin? It is not a single “event”, but a protracted process.

That is not to say that formal logic is useless. On the contrary, it was historically progressive and necessary. This method permitted enormous advances in science and knowledge. However, it reached its limits. Although subordinate to dialectical thought, it is, nevertheless, out of formal logic that dialectics emerged. ‘Dialectical thought,’ explained Trotsky, ‘is related to vulgar thinking in the same way that a motion picture is related to a still photograph. The motion picture does not outlaw the still photograph but combines a series of them according to the laws of motion.” However, the truer, more complete approximation of reality is contained in the movie.

These laws of logic, of thought, although used by billions of people, are not necessarily recognized by them as such. For instance, everyone eats according to the definite laws of physiology, but not everyone knows these laws or how they operate. Likewise, in one of Moliere’s plays there is a man who learns about prose for the first time. When they explain to him what it is, he exclaims: “Why, I’ve been speaking prose all my life!”

The limits, however, of formal logic can be clearly seen in relation to evolution. According to the law of identity, a man is essentially a man and nothing else. But we know this not to be the case. According to natural evolution man is an animal. Yet this must be extended to say man is more than an animal; man is a species that is different from all other animals. We are, in reality, two exclusively different things at one and the same time. This is a contradiction that vulgar logic is unable to grasp. Only dialectics can explain this phenomenon.

The contribution of Hegel (1770-1831), the outstanding German philosopher, under the impact of the Great French Revolution, was the development of a new higher system of logic known as dialectics. As already mentioned, the original dialectical thinkers were the ancient Greeks who attempted to understand the universe and man’s place in it. But given the low level of science and technique, their outlook was more in the nature of inspired guesses, or anticipations of later developments. Hegel studied the great Greek thinkers and drew out and developed their dialectical method, combining it with later knowledge, and producing a comprehensive analysis of the laws of dialectics.

The fundamental weakness of Hegelian dialectics was that Hegel combined them with a mystical idealist view of life. It was the great contribution of Marx and Engels that purged the dialectical method from its mystical shell. Hegel’s dialectic was on its head, believing that the material world was a reflection of a ‘Universal Idea’ or God. Marx explained, on the contrary, thoughts and ideas were simply the reflection of the material world. So Hegelian dialectics were fused with modern materialism to produce the higher understanding of dialectical materialism.

These laws of dialectical materialism were able to explain things in their development and motion. Whereas formal logic was essentially the logic of lifeless, rigid and static relationships, dialectics was precisely an understanding of real life-processes of motion, contradiction and change.

Everything, according to Engels, ‘has its existence in eternal coming into being and passing away, in ceaseless flux, in unresting motion and change…’ (Dialectics of Nature, p130). Dialectics is the logic of evolution, movement, and change. Its starting point is reality itself. A series of general laws of dialectics, outlined by Hegel, centred around the law of quantity into quality (and of quality into quantity), the unity of opposites, and the negation of the negation, which operate throughout the material world. Each one is organically linked to the others.

These laws, however, are not all-embracing and eternal. As Trotsky explained, ‘Dialectical materialism is not, of course, an eternal and immutable philosophy. To think otherwise is to contradict the spirit of the dialectic. Further development of scientific thought will undoubtedly create a more profound doctrine into which dialectical materialism will enter merely as structural material.’(In Defence of Marxism, p76). We have already noticed that dialectical thought had its basic origins 2,000 years ago, was systematically developed by Hegel, and then further deepened by Marx and Engels. At this time, modern materialist dialectics are the closest understanding and approximation to reality, fully appreciating all its internal contradictions.

‘Dialectics gives expression to a law which is felt in all grades of consciousness and in general experience,’ stated Hegel. ‘Everything that surrounds us may be viewed as an instance of dialectic. We are aware that everything finite, instead of being inflexible, is rather changeable and transient; and this is exactly what we mean by the dialectic of the finite, by which the finite, as implicitly other than it is, is forced to surrender its own immediate or natural being, and turn suddenly into its opposite.’ (Encyclopaedia, p128)

Movement and change result from causes inherent in processes and things, from internal contradictions. These contradictory tendencies within phenomena represent, in reality, a unity of opposites. The opposites are bound together in a relation of mutual dependence, where each is a condition of existence of the other. In class society, for instance, the class antagonisms between the exploiters and exploited is a fundamental aspect. One cannot exist without the other. This contradiction is the driving force of change. However, these contradictions are not static, but in the process of working themselves out. The overthrow of class society will lead to the abolition of classes themselves. New contradictions will inevitably unfold, but will be of a fundamentally different character, on a new higher level. As Lenin remarked, ‘antagonism and contradiction are utterly different. Under socialism antagonism disappears, but contradiction remains.’ (Critical Notes on Bukharin’s Economics of the Transition Period). The elements of antagonism and conflict between men disappear and give way to conscious and harmonious planning of society. Contradictions remain, but as they no longer take the form of class antagonisms they do not require the forcible domination of one set of material interests over another.

Change takes place not in a straight line, and continuous gradual smooth development, but in leaps and revolutions. All change has a quantitative element, but this reaches a certain point, when the gradual changes give rise to a qualitative leap forward. Something new is born, entirely different from before. To explain developments we need to study the facts. ‘The dialectic is not a magic master key for all questions,’ explained Trotsky. ‘It 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.” (In Defence of Marxism, p52).

Change is not simply a repetition of the past. The working out of contradictions does not mean that earlier stages of development are repeated exactly, but develop on a higher level. This is one of the most general laws of dialectics, the negation of the negation. An ‘extremely far reaching and important law’ says Engels. Motion, change and development move through an uninterrupted series of negations. But the past is not totally obliterated, but overcome and preserved at the same time. Features of the past may reappear, but in a new and enriched form. As Marx explained, capitalism arose through the ruination of pre-capitalist individual producers (its negation). The abolition of capitalism (its negation) is carried through, individual property of producers is restored, but on a higher level. The producer, as a participant in socialized production, then enjoys, as his individual property, a share of the social product.

The task of Marxism is to lay bare the real contradictions and processes unfolding in society, economy and politics. To draw a clear distinction between the appearance and the essence of things. To uncover the truth. Only by doing this will the working class, and in particular its advanced layers, see clearly its historic task and mission.

Yet, as we explained before, there are obstacles in the path of the worker’s struggle for theory and understanding far more intractable than the scribblings of priests and professors. A man or woman who is obliged to toil long hours in industry, who has not had the benefit of a decent education and consequently lacks the habit of reading, finds great difficulty in absorbing some of the more complex ideas, especially at the outset. Yet it was for workers that Marx and Engels wrote, and not for ‘clever’ students and middle class people. ‘Every beginning is difficult’ no matter what science we are talking about. Marxism is a science and therefore makes heavy demands upon the beginner. But every worker who is active in the trade unions or Labour Party knows that nothing is worthwhile if attained without a degree of struggle and sacrifice. It is the activists in the Labour Movement at whom the present pamphlet is aimed. To the active worker who is prepared to persevere. One promise can be made: once the initial effort is made to come to grips with unfamiliar and new ideas, the theories of Marxism will be found to be basically straight forward and simple. Moreover – and this should be emphasized – the worker who acquires by patient effort an understanding of Marxism will turn out to be a better theoretician than most students, just because he or she can grasp the ideas not merely in the abstract, but concretely, as applied to his or her own life and work.

In the final analysis, Marxist philosophy is a guide to action. ‘Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is, however, to change it.” (Karl Marx, Theses on Feuerbach).

(c)   ABC of Materialist Dialectics 


Leon Trotsky

December 15th, 1939

The dialectic is neither fiction nor mysticism, but a science of the forms of our thinking insofar as it is not limited to the daily problems of life but attempts to arrive at an understanding of more complicated and drawn-out processes. The dialectic and formal logic bear a relationship similar to that between higher and lower mathematics.

I will here attempt to sketch the substance of the problem in a very concise form. The Aristotelian logic of the simple syllogism starts from the proposition that ‘A’ is equal to ‘A’. This postulate is accepted as an axiom for a multitude of practical human actions and elementary generalizations. But in reality ‘A’ is not equal to ‘A’. This is easy to prove if we observe these two letters under a lens – they are quite different from each other. But, one can object, the question is not of the size or the form of the letters, since they are only symbols for equal quantities, for instance, a pound of sugar. The objection is beside the point; in reality a pound of sugar is never equal to a pound of sugar – a more delicate scale always discloses a difference. Again one can object: but a pound of sugar is equal to itself. Neither is this true – all bodies change uninterruptedly in size, weight, colour, etc. They are never equal to themselves. A sophist will respond that a pound of sugar is equal to itself ‘at any given moment.’

Aside from the extremely dubious practical value of this ‘axiom,’ it does not withstand theoretical criticism either. How should we really conceive the word ‘moment’? If it is an infinitesimal interval of time, then a pound of sugar is subjected during the course of that ‘moment’ to inevitable changes. Or is the ‘moment a purely mathematical abstraction, that is, a zero of time? But everything exists in time; and existence itself is an uninterrupted process of transformation; time is consequently a fundamental element of existence. Thus the axiom ‘A’ is equal to ‘A’ signifies that a thing is equal to itself if it does not change, that is, if it does not exist.

At first glance it could seem that these ‘subtleties’ are useless. In reality they are of decisive significance. The axiom ‘A’ is equal to ‘A’ appears on the one hand to be the point of departure for all our knowledge, on the other hand the point of departure for all the errors in our knowledge. To make use of the axiom ‘A’ is equal to ‘A’ with impunity is possible only within certain limits. When quantitative changes in ‘A’ are negligible for the task at hand then we can presume that ‘A’ is equal to ‘A’. This is, for example, the manner in which a buyer and a seller consider a pound of sugar. We consider the temperature of the sun likewise. Until recently we considered the buying power of the dollar in the same way. But quantitative changes beyond certain limits become converted into qualitative. A pound of sugar subjected to the action of water or kerosene ceases to be a pound of sugar. A dollar in the embrace of a president ceases to be a dollar. To determine at the right moment the critical point where quantity changes into quality is one of the most important and difficult tasks in all the spheres of knowledge including sociology.

Every worker knows that it is impossible to make two completely equal objects. In the elaboration of bearing-brass into cone bearings, a certain deviation is allowed for the cones which should not, however, go beyond certain limits (this is called tolerance). By observing the norms of tolerance, the cones are considered being equal. ( ‘A’ is equal to ‘A’.) When the tolerance is exceeded the quantity goes over into quality; in other words, the cone bearings become inferior or completely worthless.

Our scientific thinking is only a part of our general practice including techniques. For concepts there also exists ‘tolerance’ which is established not by formal logic issuing from the axiom ‘A’ is equal to ‘A’, but by dialectical logic issuing from the axiom that everything is always changing. ‘Common sense’ is characterized by the fact that it systematically exceeds dialectical ‘tolerance.’

Vulgar thought operates with such concepts as capitalism, morals, freedom, workers’ state, etc. as fixed abstractions, presuming that capitalism is equal to capitalism, morals is equal to morals, etc. Dialectical thinking analyses all things and phenomena in their continuous change, while determining in the material conditions of those changes that critical limit beyond which ‘A’ ceases to be ‘A’, a workers’ state ceases to be a workers’ state.

The fundamental flaw of vulgar thought lies in the fact that it wishes to content itself with motionless imprints of a reality which consists of eternal motion. Dialectical thinking gives to concepts, by means of closer approximations, corrections, concretizations, a richness of content and flexibility; I would say even a succulence which to a certain extent brings them close to living phenomena. Not capitalism in general, but a given capitalism at a given stage of development. Not a workers’ state in general, but a given workers’ state in a backward country in an imperialist encirclement, etc.

Dialectical thinking is related to vulgar thinking in the same way that a motion picture is related to a still photograph. The motion picture does not outlaw the still photograph but combines a series of them according to the laws of motion. Dialectics does not deny the syllogism, but teaches us to combine syllogisms in such a way as to bring our understanding closer to the eternally changing reality. Hegel in his Logic established a series of laws: change of quantity into quality, development through contradiction, conflict of content and form, interruption of continuity, change of possibility into inevitability, etc., which are just as important for theoretical thought as in the simple syllogism for more elementary tasks.

Hegel wrote before Darwin and before Marx. Thanks to the powerful impulse given to thought by the French Revolution, Hegel anticipated the general movement of science. But because it was only an anticipation, although by a genius, it received from Hegel an idealistic character. Hegel operated with ideological shadows as the ultimate reality. Marx demonstrated that the movement of these ideological shadows reflected nothing but the movement of material bodies.

We call our dialectic, materialist, since its roots are neither in heaven nor in the depths of our ‘free will’, but in objective reality, in nature. Consciousness grew out of the unconscious, psychology out of physiology, the organic world out of the inorganic, the solar system out of nebulae. On all the rungs of this ladder of development, the quantitative changes were transformed into qualitative. Our thought, including dialectical thought, is only one of the forms of the expression of changing matter. There is place within this system for neither God, nor Devil, nor immortal soul, nor eternal norms of laws and morals. The dialectic of thinking, having grown out of the dialectic of nature, possesses consequently a thoroughly materialist character.

Darwinism, which explained the evolution of species through quantitative transformations passing into qualitative, was the highest triumph of the dialectic in the whole field of organic matter. Another great triumph was the discovery of the table of atomic weights of chemical elements and further the transformation of one element into another.

With these transformations (species, elements, etc.) is closely linked the question of classification, equally important in the natural as in the social sciences. Linnaeus’ system (18th century), utilizing as its starting point the immutability of species, was limited to the description and classification of plants according to their external characteristics. The infantile period of botany is analogous to the infantile period of logic, since the forms of our thought develop like everything that lives. Only decisive repudiation of the idea of fixed species, only the study of the history of the evolution of plants and their anatomy, prepared the basis for a really scientific classification.

Marx, who in distinction from Darwin was a conscious dialectician, discovered a basis for the scientific classification of human societies in the development of their productive forces and the structure of the relations of ownership which constitute the anatomy of society. Marxism substituted for the vulgar descriptive classification of societies and states, which even up to now still flourishes in the universities, a materialistic dialectical classification. Only through using the method of Marx is it possible correctly to determine both the concept of a workers’ state and the moment of its downfall.

All this, as we see, contains nothing ‘metaphysical’ or ‘scholastic’, as conceited ignorance affirms. Dialectical logic expresses the laws of motion in contemporary scientific thought. The struggle against materialist dialectics on the contrary expresses a distant past, conservatism of the petty bourgeoisie, the self-conceit of university routinists and … a spark of hope for an after-life.

(d)   Dialectical Materialism


John Pickard

When we discuss the method of Marxism, we are dealing with the ideas which provide the basis for our activities in the labour movement, the arguments we raise in the discussions we take part in, and the articles we write.

It is generally accepted that Marxism took its form from three main roots. One of those roots was the development of Marx’s analysis of French politics, particularly the bourgeois revolution in France in the 1790s, and the subsequent class struggles during the early 19th century. Another of the roots of Marxism is what is called ‘English economics’, i.e., Marx’s analysis of the capitalist system as it developed in England. The other root of Marxism, which was its starting point historically, is said to be ‘German philosophy’, and it is that aspect of it that I want to deal with here.

To begin with, we say that the basis of Marxism is materialism. That is to say, Marxism starts from the idea that matter is the essence of all reality, and that matter creates mind, and not vice versa.

In other words, thought and all the things that are said to derive from thought – artistic ideas, scientific ideas, ideas of law, politics, morality and so on – these things are in fact derived from the material world. The ‘mind’, i.e., thought and thought processes, is a product of the brain; and the brain itself, and therefore ideas, arose at a certain stage in the development of living matter. It is a product of the material world.

Therefore, to understand the real nature of human consciousness and society, as Marx himself put it, it is a question ‘not of setting out from what men say, imagine, conceive… in order to arrive at men in the flesh; but setting out from real, active men, and on the basis of their real life-process demonstrating the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of this life-process. The phantoms formed in the human brain are also, necessarily, images of their material life-process, which is empirically verifiable and bound to material premises. Morality, religion, metaphysics, all the rest of ideology and their corresponding forms of consciousness, thus no longer retain the semblance of independence. They have no history, no development; but men, developing their material production and their material intercourse, alter, along with their real existence, their thinking and the products of their thinking. Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life. In the first (non-materialist) method of approach the starting point is consciousness taken as the living individual; in the second (materialist) method, which conforms to real living individuals themselves, and consciousness is considered solely as their consciousness.’ (The German Ideology, Chapter one).

A materialist therefore seeks an explanation not only for ideas, but for material phenomena themselves, in terms of material causes and not in terms of supernatural intervention by gods and the like. And that is a very important aspect of Marxism, which clearly sets it aside from the methods of thinking and logic which have become established in capitalist society.

The development of scientific thought in the European countries in the 17th and 18th centuries displayed some really contradictory characteristics, which still remain typical of the approach of bourgeois theoreticians today. On the one hand there was a development towards a materialist method. Scientists looked for causes. They didn’t just accept natural phenomena as god-ordained miracles; they sought some explanation for them. But at the same time these scientists did not yet possess a consistent or worked-out materialist understanding; and very often, behind the explanations for natural phenomena, they also saw, at the end of the chain, the hand of God at work.

Such an approach means accepting, or at least leaving open the possibility, that the material world we live in is ultimately shaped by forces from outside it, and that consciousness or ideas come first, in the sense that they can exist independently of the real world. This approach, which is the philosophical opposite of materialism, we call ‘idealism’.

According to this approach, the development of mankind and of society – of art, science, etc. – is dictated not by material processes but by the development of ideas, by the perfection or degeneration of human thought. And it is no accident that this general approach, whether spoken or unspoken, pervades all the philosophies of capitalism.

Bourgeois philosophers and historians in general take the present system for granted. They accept that capitalism is some kind of finished, complete system which is incapable of being replaced by a new and higher system. And they try to present all past history as the efforts of lesser mortals to achieve the kind of ‘perfect society’ which they believe capitalism has achieved or can achieve.

So, when we look at the work of some of the greatest bourgeois scientists and thinkers in the past or even today, we can see how they have tended to jumble up materialist ideas and idealist ideas in their minds. For example Isaac Newton, who examined the laws of mechanics and the laws of motion of planets and planetary bodies, didn’t believe that these processes were dictated by mind or thought. But what he did believe was that an original impetus was given to all matter, and that this initial push was provided by some sort of supernatural force, by God.

In the same way it is possible today for many biologists to accept the idea that species of plants and animals evolved from one type to another, and that mankind itself is a development from earlier species. And yet many of them cling to the notion that there is a qualitative difference between the human mind and the animal mind, consisting of the ‘eternal soul’ which leaves the human body after death. Even some of the most eminent scientists jumble up the materialist method with idealist ideas of this kind, which are really backward, scientifically speaking, and are more related to magic and superstition than to science.

Marxism therefore represents a systematic and fundamental break with idealism in all its forms, and the development in its place of a materialist understanding of what is taking place in reality. Materialism in this sense provides one of the basic starting points of Marxism. The other basic starting point is dialectics.


Dialectics is quite simply the logic of motion, or the logic of common sense to activists in the movement. We all know that things don’t stand still, they change. But there is another form of logic which stands in contradiction to dialectics, which we call ‘formal logic’, which again is deeply embodied in capitalist society. It is perhaps necessary to begin by describing briefly what this method implies.

Formal logic is based on what is known as the ‘law of identity’, which says that ‘A’ equals ‘A’ – i.e. that things are what they are, and that they stand in definite relationships to each other. There are other derivative laws based on the law of identity; for example, if ‘A’ equals ‘A’, it follows that ‘A’ cannot equal ‘B’, nor ‘C’.

On the face of it this method of thinking may again seem like common sense; and in fact it has been a very important tool, a very important device in the development of science and in the industrial revolution which created the present-day society. The development of mathematics and basic arithmetic, for example, was based on formal logic. You couldn’t teach a child a table of multiplication or addition without using formal logic. One plus one equals two, and not three. And in the same way, the method of formal logic was also the basis for the development of mechanics, of chemistry, of biology, etc.

For example, in the 18th century the Scandinavian biologist Linnaeus developed a system of classification for all known plants and animals. Linnaeus divided all living things into classes, into orders, into families, in the order of primates, in the family of hominids, in the genus of homo, and represents the species homo sapiens.

The system of classification represented an enormous step forward in biology. It made possible, for the first time, a real systematic study of plants ad animals, to compare and contrast animal and plant species. But it was based on formal logic. It was based on saying that homo sapiens equals homo sapiens; that musca domestica (the common housefly) equals musca domestica; that an earthworm equals earthworm, and so on. It was, in other words, a fixed and rigid system. It wasn’t possible, according to this system, for a species to equal to anything else, otherwise the system of classification would have completely collapsed.

The same applies in the field of chemistry, where Dalton’s atomic theory meant a huge stride forward. Dalton’s theory was based on the idea that matter is made up of atoms, and that each type of atom is completely separate and peculiar to itself – that its shape and weight is peculiar to that particular element and to none other.

After Dalton there was a more or less rigid classification of elements, again based on a rigid formal logic, whereby it was said that an atom of hydrogen was an atom of hydrogen, an atom of carbon was an atom of carbon, etc. And if any atom could have been something else, this whole system of classification, which has formed the basis of modern chemistry, would have collapsed.

Now it is important to see that there are limitations to the method of formal logic. It is a useful everyday method, and it gives us useful approximations for identifying things. For example, the Linnaean system of classification is still useful to biologists; but since the work of Charles Darwin in particular we can also see the weaknesses in that system.

Darwin pointed out, for instance, that in the Linnaean system some types of plants are given separate names, as separate species, but actually they are very similar to each other. And yet there are other plants with the same name, of the same species, which are said to be different varieties of the same plant, and yet they are very different from each other.

So even by the time of Charles Darwin it was possible to look at the Linnaean system of classification and say, ‘well, there’s something wrong somewhere’. And of course Darwin’s own work provided a systematic basis for the theory of evolution, which for the first time said it is possible for one species to be transformed into another species.

And that left a big hole in the Linnaean system. Before Darwin it was thought that the number of species on the planet was exactly the same as the number of species created by God in the first six days of his labour – except, of course, for those destroyed by the Flood – and that those species had survived unchanged over the millennia. But Darwin produced the idea of species changing, and so inevitably the method of classification also had to be changed.

What applies in the field of biology applies also in the field of chemistry. Chemists became aware, by the late 19th century, that it was possible for one atomic element to become transformed into another. In other words, atoms aren’t completely separated and peculiar to themselves. We know now that many atoms, many chemical elements, are unstable. For example, uranium and other radioactive atoms will split in the course of time and produce completely different atoms with completely different chemical properties and different atomic weights.

So we can see that the method of formal logic was beginning to break down with the development of science itself. But it is the method of dialectics which draws the conclusions of these factual discoveries, and points out there are no absolute or fixed categories, either in nature or in society.

Whereas the formal logician will say that ‘A’ equals ‘A’, the dialectician will say that ‘A’ does not necessarily equal ‘A’. Or to take a practical example that Trotsky uses in his writings, one pound of sugar will not be precisely equal to another pound of sugar. It is a good enough approximation if you want to buy sugar in a shop, but if you look at it more carefully you will see that it’s actually wrong.

So we need to have a form of understanding, a form of logic, that takes into account the fact that things, and life, and society, are in a state of constant motion and change. And that form of logic, of course, is dialectics.

But on the other hand it would be wrong to think that dialectics ascribes to the universe a process of even and gradual change. The laws of dialectics – and here is a word of warning: these concepts sound more intimidating than they really are – the laws of dialectics describe the manner in which the processes of change in reality take place.

Quantity into Quality

Let us take, to begin with, ‘the law of the transformation of quantity into quality’. This law states that the processes of change – motion in the universe – are not gradual, they are not even. Periods of relatively gradual or slight change are interspersed with periods of enormously rapid change – change which cannot be measured in terms of quantity but only in terms of quality.

To use an example from natural science again, let us imagine the heating of water. You can actually measure (“quantify”), in terms of degrees of temperature, the change that takes place in the water as you add heat to it. From, let us say, 10 degrees centigrade (which is normal tap water) to about 98 degrees centigrade, the change will remain quantitative; i.e., the water will remain water, although it is getting warmer.

But then comes a point where the change in the water becomes qualitative, and the water turns into steam. You can no longer describe the change in the water as it is heated from 98 degrees to 102 degrees in purely quantitative terms. We have to say that a qualitative change (water into steam) has come about as a result of an accumulation of quantitative change (adding more and more heat).

And that is what Marx and Engels meant when they referred to the transformation of quantity into quality. The same can be seen in the development of species. There is always a great variety in every species. If we look around this room we can see the degree of variety in homo sapiens. That variety can be measured quantitatively, for example, in terms of height, weight, skin colour, length of nose, etc.

But if evolutionary changes progress to a certain point under the impact of environmental changes, then those quantitative changes can add up to a qualitative change. In other words, you would no longer characterize that change in animal or plant species merely in terms of quantitative details. The species will have become qualitatively different.

For example, we as a species are qualitatively different from chimpanzees or gorillas, and they in turn are qualitatively different from other species of mammals. And those qualitative differences, those evolutionary leaps, have come about as a result of quantitative changes in the past.

The idea of Marxism is that there will always be periods of gradual change interspersed with periods of sudden change. In pregnancy, there is a period of gradual development, and then a period of very sudden development at the end. The same applies to social development. Very often Marxists have used the analogy of pregnancy to describe the development of wars and revolutions. These represent qualitative leaps in social development; but they come about as a result of the accumulation of quantitative contradictions in society.

Negation of the Negation

A second law of dialectics is ‘the law of the negation of the negation’, and again it sounds more complicated than it really is. ‘Negation’ in this sense simply means the passing away of one thing, the death of one thing as it becomes transformed into another.

For example, the development of class society in the early history of humanity represented the negation of the previous classless society. And in future, with the development of communism, we will see another classless society, that would mean the negation of all present class society.

So the law of the negation of the negation simply states that as one system comes into existence, it forces another system to pass away. But that doesn’t mean that the second system is permanent or unchangeable. That second system itself becomes negated as a result of the further developments and processes of change in society. As class society has been the negation of classless society, so communist society will be the negation of class society – the negation of the negation.

Another concept of dialectics is the law of the ‘interpenetration of opposite’. This law quite simply states that processes of change take place because of contradictions – because of the conflicts between the different elements that are embodied in all natural and social processes.

Probably the best example of the interpenetration of opposites in natural science is the ‘quantum theory’. This theory is based on the concept of energy having a dual character – that for some purposes, according to some experiments, energy exists in the form of waves, like electromagnetic energy. But for other purposes energy manifests itself as particles. In other words, it is quite accepted among scientists that matter and energy can actually exist in two different forms at one and the same time – on the one hand as a kind of intangible wave, on the other hand as a particle with a definite ‘quantum’ (amount) of energy embodied in it.

Therefore the basis of the quantum theory in modern physics is contradiction. But there are many other contradictions known to science. Electromagnetic energy, for example, is set in motion through the effect of positive and negative forces on each other. Magnetism depends on the existence of a north pole and a south pole. These things cannot exist separately. They exist and operate precisely because of the contradictory forces being embodied in one and the same system.

Similarly, every society today consists of different contradictory elements joined together in one system, which makes it impossible for any society, any country, to remain stable or unchanged. The dialectical method, in contrast to the method of formal logic, trains us to identify these contradictions, and thereby get to the bottom of the changes taking place.

Marxists are not embarrassed to say that there are contradictory elements within every social process. On the contrary, it is precisely by recognizing and understanding the opposite interests embodied within the same process that we are able to work out the likely direction of change, and consequently to identify the aims and objectives which it is necessary and possible in that situation to strive for from the working class point of view.

At the same time, Marxism doesn’t abandon formal logic altogether. But it is important to see, from the point of view of understanding social developments, that formal logic must take second position.

We all use formal logic for everyday purposes. It gives us the necessary approximations for communication and conducting our daily activities. We wouldn’t be able to lead normal lives without paying lip service to formal logic, without using the approximation that one equals one.

But, on the other hand, we have to see the limitations of formal logic – the limitations that become evident in science when we study processes in more depth and detail, and also when we examine social and political processes more closely.

Dialectics is very rarely accepted by scientists. Some scientists are dialecticians, but the majority, even today, muddle up a materialist approach with all sorts of formal and idealistic ideas.

And if that’s the case in natural science, it is much, much more the case as far as the social sciences are concerned. The reasons for this are fairly obvious. If you try to examine society and social processes from a scientific point of view, then you cannot avoid coming up against the contradictions of the capitalist system and the need for the socialist transformation of society.

But the universities, which are supposed to be centres of learning and study, are under capitalism far from being independent of the ruling class and the state. That is why natural science can still have a scientific method which leans towards dialectical materialism; but when it comes to the social sciences you will find in the colleges and universities some of the worst kinds of formalism and idealism possible.

That is not unrelated to the vested interests of the professors and academics who are highly paid. It is obvious and unavoidable that their privileged position in society will have some reflection, some effect on what they’re supposed to teach. Their own views and prejudices will be contained in the ‘knowledge’ which they pass on to their students, and so on down to the level of the schools.

Bourgeois historians, in particular, are among the most shortsighted of all social scientists. How many times have we seen examples of bourgeois historians who imagine that history ended yesterday! Here in Britain they all seem to admit the horrors of British imperialism as far as the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries are concerned; that British imperialism engaged in slave traffic; that it was responsible for some of the most bloody subjugation of colonial peoples; that it was also responsible for some of the worst exploitation of British workers, including women and children, in the coal mines, the cotton mills, and so on.

They will accept all these iniquities – up until yesterday. But when it comes to today, of course, then British imperialism suddenly becomes democratic and progressive.

And that is completely one-sided, a completely lopsided view of history, which is diametrically opposed to the method of Marxism. The attitude of Marx and Engels was to view social processes from the same dialectical standpoint from which they viewed nature – from the standpoint of the processes that are actually taking place.

In our everyday discussions and debates in the labour movement, we will often come across people who are formalists. Even many on the left will look at things in a completely rigid and formal way, without understanding the direction in which things are moving.

The right wing in the labour movement, and also some on the left, believe that Marxist theory is a dogma, that ‘theory’ is like a 600 lb weight on the back of an activist, and the quicker you get rid of that weight, the more active and effective you can be.

But that is a complete misconception of the whole nature of Marxist theory. In point of fact Marxism is the opposite of a dogma. It is precisely a method for coming to grips with the processes of change that are taking place around us.

Nothing is fixed and nothing remains unchanged. It is the formalists who see society as a still photograph, who can get overawed by the situations they are faced with because they don’t see how and why things will change. It is this kind of approach that can easily lead to a dogmatic acceptance of things as they are or as they have been, without understanding the inevitability of change.

Marxist theory is therefore an absolutely essential device for any activity within the labour movement. We need to be consciously attuned to the contradictory forces at work in the class struggle, in order to orient ourselves to the way in which events are developing.

Of course it isn’t always easy to free ourselves from the prevailing framework of thinking in capitalist society and absorb the Marxist method. As Karl Marx said, there is no royal road to science. You have to treat the hard path sometimes in grappling with new political ideas.

But the discussion and study of Marxist theory is an absolutely essential part of the development of every activist. It is that theory alone that will provide comrades with a compass and a map amidst all the complexities of the struggle. It is all very well to be an activist. But without a conscious understanding of the processes you are involved in, you are no more effective than an explorer without a compass and a map.

And if you try to explore without scientific aids, you can be as energetic as you like but sooner or later you will fall into a ravine or a bog and disappear, as so many activists over the years have unfortunately done.

The idea of having a compass and a map is that you can take your bearings. You can judge where you are at any particular time, where you are going and where you will be. And that is the fundamental reason why we need to get to grips with Marxist theory. It provides us with an absolutely invaluable guide to action as far as our activities in the labour movement are concerned.

(e)   On the Question of Dialectics


Vladimir Lenin

(Collected Works, Volume 38, p. 359)

The splitting of a single whole and the cognition of its contradictory parts is the essence (one of the “essentials”, one of the principal, if not the principal, characteristics or features) of dialectics. That is precisely how Hegel, too, puts the matter.

The correctness of this aspect of the content of dialectics must be tested by the history of science. This aspect of dialectics (e.g. in Plekhanov) usually receives inadequate attention: the identity of opposites is taken as the sum-total of examples (“for example, a seed”, “for example, primitive communism”. The same is true of Engels. But it is “in the interests of popularization …”) and not as a law of cognition (and as a law of the objective world.)

In mathematics: + and -, differential and integral,

In mechanics: action and reaction,

In physics: positive and negative electricity,

In chemistry: the combination and dissociation of atoms,

In social science: the class struggle.

The identity of opposites (it would be more correct, perhaps, to say their “unity”, – although the difference between the terms identity and unity is not particularly important here. In a certain sense both are correct) is the recognition (discovery) of the contradictory, mutually exclusive, opposite tendencies in all phenomena and processes of nature (including mind and society). The condition for the knowledge of all processes of the world in their “self-movement”, in their spontaneous development, in their real life, is the knowledge of them as a unity of opposites. Development is the “struggle” of opposites. The two basic (or two possible? Or two historically observable?) conceptions of development (evolution) are: development as decrease and increase, as repetition, and development as a unity of opposites (the division of a unity into mutually exclusive opposites and their reciprocal relation)!

In the first conception of motion, self-movement, its driving force, its source, its motive, remains in the shade (or this source is made external – God, subject, etc.). In the second conception the chief attention is directed precisely to knowledge of the source of “self”-movement.

The first conception is lifeless, pale and dry. The second is living. The second alone furnishes the key to the “self-movement” of everything existing; it alone furnishes the key to “leaps”, to the “break in continuity,” to the transformation into the opposite”, to the destruction of the old and the emergence of the new.

The unity (coincidence, identity, equal action) of opposites is conditional, temporary, transitory, relative. The struggle of mutually exclusive opposites is absolute, just as development and motion are absolute.

NB: The distinction between subjectivism (scepticism, sophistry, etc.) and dialectics, incidentally, is that in (objective) dialectics the difference between the relative and the absolute is itself relative. For objective dialectics there is an absolute within the relative. For subjectivism and sophistry the relative is only relative and excludes the absolute.

In his Capital, Marx first analyses the simplest, most ordinary and fundamental, most common and everyday relation of bourgeois (commodity) society, a relation encountered billions of times, viz., the exchange of commodities. In this very simple phenomenon (in this “cell” of bourgeois society) analysis reveals all the contradictions (or the germs of all contradictions) of modern society. The subsequent exposition shows us the development (both growth and movement) of these contradictions and of this society in the Sum of its individual parts. From its beginning to its end.

Such must also be the method of exposition (or study) of dialectics in general (for with Marx the dialectics of bourgeois society is only a particular case of dialectics). To begin with what is the simplest, most ordinary, common, etc., with any proposition: the leaves of a tree are green; John is a man: Fido is a dog, etc. Here already we have dialectics (as Hegel’s genius recognized); the individual is the universal.

Consequently, the opposites (the individual is opposed to the universal) are identical: the individual exists only in the connection that leads to the universal. The universal exists only in the individual and through the individual. Every individual is (in one way or another) a universal. Every universal is (a fragment, or an aspect, or the essence of) an individual. Every universal only approximately embraces all the individual objects. Every individual enters incompletely into the universal, etc., etc. Every individual is connected by thousands of transitions with other kinds of individuals (things, phenomena, processes) etc. Here already we have the elements, the germs, the concepts of necessity, of objective connection in nature, etc. Here already we have the contingent and the necessary, the phenomenon and the essence; for when we say: John is a man, Fido is a dog, this is a leaf of a tree, etc., we disregard a number of attributes as contingent; we separate the essence from the appearance, and counterpose the one to the other.

Thus in any proposition we can (and must) disclose as in a “nucleus” (:cell”) the germs of all the elements of dialectics, and thereby show that dialectics is a property of all human knowledge in general.

And natural science shows us (and here again it must be demonstrated in any simple instance) objective nature with the same qualities, the transformation of the individual into the universal, of the contingent into the necessary, transitions, modulations, and the reciprocal connection of opposites. Dialectics is the theory of knowledge of (Hegel and) Marxism. This is the “aspect” of the matter (it is not “an aspect” but the essence of the matter) to which Plekhanov, not to speak of other Marxists, paid no attention.

Knowledge is represented in the form of a series of circles both by Hegel (see Logic) and by the modern epistemologists of natural science, the eclectic and foe of Hegelianism (which he did not understand!!), Paul Volkmann.

“Circles” in philosophy: [is a chronology of persons – essential? No!

Ancient: from Democritus to Plato and the dialectics of Heraclitus.

Renaissance: Descartes versus Gassendi (Spinoza?)

Modern: Holbach-Hegel (via Berkeley, Hume, Kant).

Hegel – Feuerbach – Marx

Dialectics as living, many-sided knowledge (with the number of sides eternally increasing), with an infinite number of shades of every approach and approximation to reality (with a philosophical system growing into a whole out of each shade) – here we have an immeasurably rich content as compared with metaphysical materialism, the fundamental misfortune of which is its inability to apply dialectics to the theory of reflection, to the process and development of knowledge.

Philosophical idealism is only nonsense from the standpoint of crude, simple, metaphysical materialism. From the standpoint of dialectical materialism, on the other hand, philosophical idealism is a one-sided, exaggerated, development (inflation, distension) of one of the features, aspects, facets of knowledge, into an absolute, divorced from matter, from nature, apotheosized. Idealism is clerical obscurantism. True. But philosophical idealism is (“more correctly” and “in addition”) a road to clerical obscurantism through one of the shades of the infinitely complex knowledge (dialectical) of man.

Human knowledge is not (or does not follow) a straight line, but a curve, which endlessly approximates a series of circles, a spiral. Any fragment, segment, section of this curve can be transformed (transformed one-sidedly) into an independent, complete, straight line, which then (if one does not see the wood for the trees) leads into the quagmire, into clerical obscurantism (where it is anchored by the class interests of the ruling classes). Rectilinearity and one-sidedness, woodenness and petrification, subjectivism and subjective blindness – voila the epistemological roots of idealism. And clerical obscurantism (= philosophical idealism), of course, has epistemological roots, it is not groundless; it is a sterile flower undoubtedly, but a sterile flower that grows on the living tree of living, fertile, genuine, powerful, omnipotent, objective, absolute human knowledge.


(f)     The Three Sources and Component Parts of Marxism (extract)


Vladimir I. Lenin

The philosophy of Marxism is materialism. Throughout the recent history of Europe, and particularly at the end of the eighteenth century in France, which was the scene of the decisive battle against every kind of medieval rubbish, against serfdom in institutions and ideas, materialism proved to be the only consistent philosophy, true to all the teachings of natural science, hostile to superstitions, cant, etc. The enemies of democracy tried, therefore, with all their energy, to “overthrow,” undermine and defame materialism, and defended various forms of philosophic idealism, which always leads, in one way or another, to the defence and support of religion.

Marx and Engels always defended philosophic materialism in the most determined manner, and repeatedly explained the profound error of every deviation from this basis. Their views are more dearly and fully expounded in the works of Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach and Anti-Dühring, which, like The Communist Manifesto, are household books for every conscious worker.

However, Marx did not stop at the materialism of the eighteenth century but moved philosophy forward. He enriched it by the achievements of German classical philosophy especially by Hegel’s system, which in its turn had led to the materialism of Feuerbach. Of these the main achievement is dialectics, i.e., the doctrine of development in its fuller, deeper form, free from one-sidedness – the doctrine, also, of the relativity of human knowledge that provides us with a reflection of eternally developing matter. The latest discoveries of natural science – radium, electrons, the transmutation of elements – are a remarkable confirmation of the dialectical materialism of Marx, despite the doctrines of bourgeois philosophers with their “new” returns to old and rotten idealism.

While deepening and developing philosophic materialism, Marx carried it to its conclusion; he extended its perception of nature to the perception of human society. The historical materialism of Marx represented the greatest conquest of scientific thought.

Chaos and arbitrariness, which reigned until then in the views on history and politics, were replaced by a strikingly consistent and harmonious scientific theory, which shows how out of one order of social life another and higher order develops, in consequence of the growth of the productive forces – how capitalism, for instance, grows out of serfdom.

Just as the cognition of man reflects nature (i.e., developing matter) which exists independently of him, so also the social cognition of man (i.e., the various views and doctrines – philosophic, religious, political, etc.) reflects the economic order of society. Political institutions are a superstructure on the economic foundation. We see, for example, that the various political forms of modern European states serve the purpose of strengthening the domination of the bourgeoisie over the proletariat.

The philosophy of Marx completes in itself philosophic materialism which has provided humanity, and especially the working class, with a powerful instrument of knowledge.


(g)   Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy (extract)


Friedrich Engels

Out of the dissolution of the Hegelian school … there developed still another tendency, the only one which has borne real fruit. And this tendency is essentially connected with the name of Marx.

The separation from Hegelian philosophy was here also the result of a return to the materialist standpoint. That means it was resolved to comprehend the real world – nature and history – just as it presents itself to everyone who approaches it free from preconceived idealist crotchets. It was decided mercilessly to sacrifice every idealist which could not be brought into harmony with the facts conceived in their own and not in a fantastic interconnection. And materialism means nothing more than this. But here the materialistic world outlook was taken really seriously for the first time and was carried through consistently – at least in its basic features – in all domains of knowledge concerned.

Hegel was not simply put aside. On the contrary, a start was made from his revolutionary side, described above, from the dialectical method. But in its Hegelian form, this method was unusable. According to Hegel, dialectics is the self-development of the concept. The absolute concept does not only exist – unknown where – from eternity, it is also the actual living soul of the whole existing world. It develops into itself through all the preliminary stages which are treated at length in the Logic and which are all included in it. Then it “alienates” itself by changing into nature, where, unconscious of itself, disguised as a natural necessity, it goes through a new development and finally returns as man’s consciousness of himself. This self-consciousness then elaborates itself again in history in the crude form until finally the absolute concept again comes to itself completely in the Hegelian philosophy. According to Hegel, therefore, the dialectical development apparent in nature and history – that is, the causal interconnection of the progressive movement from the lower to the higher, which asserts itself through all zigzag movements and temporary retrogression – is only a copy [Abklatsch] of the self-movement of the concept going on from eternity, no one knows where, but at all events independently of any thinking human brain. This ideological perversion had to be done away with. We again took a materialistic view of the thoughts in our heads, regarding them as images [Abbilder] of real things instead of regarding real things as images of this or that stage of the absolute concept. Thus dialectics reduced itself to the science of the general laws of motion, both of the external world and of human thought – two sets of laws which are identical in substance, but differ in their expression in so far as the human mind can apply them consciously, while in nature and also up to now for the most part in human history, these laws assert themselves unconsciously, in the form of external necessity, in the midst of an endless series of seeming accidents. Thereby the dialectic of concepts itself became merely the conscious reflex of the dialectical motion of the real world and thus the dialectic of Hegel was turned over; or rather, turned off its head, on which it was standing, and placed upon its feet. And this materialist dialectic, which for years has been our best working tool and our sharpest weapon, was, remarkably enough, discovered not only by us but also, independently of us and even of Hegel, by a German worker, Joseph Dietzgen. (2)

In this way, however, the revolutionary side of Hegelian philosophy was again taken up and at the same time freed from the idealist trimmings which with Hegel had prevented its consistent execution. The great basic thought that the world is not to be comprehended as a complex of readymade things, but as a complex of processes, in which the things apparently stable no less than their mind images in our heads, the concepts, go through an uninterrupted change of coming into being and passing away, in which, in spite of all seeming accidentally and of all temporary retrogression, a progressive development asserts itself in the end – this great fundamental thought has, especially since the time of Hegel, so thoroughly permeated ordinary consciousness that in this generality it is now scarcely ever contradicted. But to acknowledge this fundamental thought in words and to apply it in reality in detail to each domain of investigation are two different things. If, however, investigation always proceeds from this standpoint, the demand for final solutions and eternal truths ceases once for all; one is always conscious of the necessary limitation of all acquired knowledge, of the fact that it is conditioned by the circumstances in which it was acquired. On the other hand, one no longer permits oneself to be imposed upon by the antithesis, insuperable for the still common old metaphysics, between true and false, good and bad, identical and different, necessary and accidental. One knows that these antitheses have only a relative validity; that that which is recognized now as true has also its latent false side which will later manifest itself, just as that which is now regarded as false has also its true side by virtue of which it could previously be regarded as true. One knows that what is maintained to be necessary is composed of sheer accidents and that the so-called accidental is the form behind which necessity hides itself – and so on.

The old method of investigation and thought which Hegel calls “metaphysical”, which preferred to investigate things as given, as fixed and stable, a method the relics of which still strongly haunt people’s minds, had a great deal of historical justification in its day. It was necessary first to examine things before it was possible to examine processes. One had first to know what a particular thing was before one could observe the changes it was undergoing. And such was the case with natural science. The old metaphysics, which accepted things as finished objects, arose from a natural science which investigated dead and living things as finished objects. But when this investigation had progressed so far that it became possible to take the decisive step forward, that is, to pass on the systematic investigation of the changes which these things undergo in nature itself, then the last hour of the old metaphysic struck in the realm of philosophy also. And in fact, while natural science up to the end of the last century was predominantly a collecting science, a science of finished things, in our century it is essentially a systematizing science, a science of the processes, of the origin and development of these things and of the interconnection which binds all these natural processes into one great whole. Physiology, which investigates the processes occurring in plant and animal organisms; embryology, which deals with the development of individual organisms from germs to maturity; geology, which investigates the gradual formation of the Earth’s surface – all these are the offspring of our century.