Dialectical Materialism



The term Dialectical Materialism was not used by Marx himself but by subsequent Marxists to delineate the synthesis of Marx’s critiques of Hegel’s Dialectics, which he called idealist and Feuerbach’s materialism, which he called mechanical or metaphysical. For the first time the term Dialectical Materialism was used by Plekhanov in 1891.Five years after Marx’s death Engels expressed his and Marx’s gratitude in Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy (1888) “To Feuerbach , who after all, in many respects forms the link between Hegelian philosophy and our conception”. For the “influence which Feuerbach, more than any post Hegelian philosopher” had   upon them Engels acknowledged his “undischarged debt of honor”. [SW:585] .

Diamat (dialectical materialism) was one of the key words in the discussions among the first generation of Marxists, after Marx. Diamat is considered to be the Marxist philosophy — the world view — related to and supported by, what is known as Marxist science — historical materialism. Dialectical materialism is union of two main strands of philosophy – the materialism of the enlightenment era of scientific revolution, which Marx calls metaphysical or mechanical and the dialectics of Hegel, which he calls idealist or ideological — that Marx inherited, rejected and transformed.

According to Hegel, reality is wholly or basically constituted by thoughts or ideas. Drawing the distinction between the appearance and inner world – the essence – Hegel claims that the inner reality is concealed by, and is reverse of its phenomenal form. “By the law of this inverted world, then, the self same in the first world is unlike of itself and unlike in the first is equally unlike to itself . …. what by the law of first is sweet is, in this inverted reality, sour; what is there black is here white.” In reaction to this Marx asserts, as said before, that truth must be proved in practice, in this world and not in the obscurities of its inversion, the abstract ideas. In the labyrinth of philosophical jargons Hegel obfuscates the reality transporting Plato’s World of Ideas into the vocabulary of classical German Philosophy and his Ideal state into Prussian monarchy. According to Hegel,

“looked at one surface this inverted world is anti-thesis of the first in the sense that it has the latter outside itself and repels that world from itself as an inverted reality; that the one is the sphere of appearance, while the other is the inherent being; that one is the world as it is for another, the other again the world again as it is for itself.” [Phenomenology of Mind, Larrain; 122] 

But unlike Kant, for whom, the inner reality was so different from phenomenal that it could not be known, Hegel’s these two worlds are not dichotomous. Appearance is the manifestation of the essence and essence is the truth of appearance.

“Thus the super-sensible world, which is the inverted world, has at the same time reached out beyond the other world has in itself the other, it is to itself conscious of being inverted, i.e. it is the inverted form of itself; it is that world itself and its opposite in a single unity”

Through the contradiction of essence and appearance, Hegel reached the ‘distinction per say, in the ‘form of infinity’ or ‘absolute motion’. This is the ‘ultimate nature of life, soul of the world, the universal life-blood’ which is itself ‘every distinction that arises, as well as that into which all distinctions are dissolved’. [Phenomenology of Mind, Larrain; 123] This means that the internal distinction is self-identity and self-consciousness, if so the distinction between appearance and essence in the natural world is a reflection in the distinction between self-consciousness materiality itself becomes the inverted and the distinction between consciousness and its object is thus eliminated. As Marx put it in his critique of Hegel,

“The main point is that the object or consciousness is nothing else but self-consciousness, or that the object is only objectified self-consciousness, self-consciousness as object.” [EPM, Larrain; 123]

Hegel identifies alienation with objectification in terms of producing object. Consciousness is absolutely alien to itself. Objectivity therefore is alienated self-consciousness. To overcome alienation, i.e. to re-appropriate self-consciousness implies to transcend the objectivity. And consciousness is the essence, the reality; hence the process takes place in consciousness. To overcome the alienation and inversion it entails, is merely the recognition by the consciousness that the objectivity is its own inverted creation. As Marx puts it, “the appropriation of man’s objectified and estranged essential powers is therefore firstly only an appropriation which takes place in conciseness in pure thought.” [EPM, Larrain: 123] Thus the notion of inversion is defined in epistemological terms natural consequence of the process of production of thought and the simultaneous production of reality as its opposite.

Marx takes the inversion from Hegel and reverses the thesis. By means of their conscious practice, humans produce objective power that forms the basis for the relations of production and forces of production. Objectification of human practice is not alienating in itself but result of the lack of control over that objective power. Alienation is result of particular kind of inhuman objectification in which the men and women don’t control its results but are controlled by them. For Hegel, “it is not the fact that the human essence objectifies itself in an inhuman way, in opposition to itself but that it objectifies itself in distinction from and in opposition to abstract thought.” [Phenomenology of Mind, Larraine; 124] For Hegel inversion is inherent in the self-consciousness and for Marx, it is an attribute of a particular social condition. The consciousness does not generate the inverted objective reality but the inverted reality generates the inverted consciousness. If the religion is the inverted consciousness of the world it is because state and society that invented the religion are an inverted world. In Hegel’s criticism, Marx writes, ‘having superseded religion and recognized it as a product of self-alienation, he still finds himself confirmed in religion as religion,. Here is the root of Hegel’s false positivism or his merely an apparent criticism””. [EPM, Larrain: 125] Prussian State, objectification: manifestations of self-comciousness: self-realization of idea.

In German Ideology, Marx and Engels extensively criticize Hegel’s conception of history and objective reality as the inverted appearance of self-consciousness which in turn is the inversion of reality. In this conception human activity appears as the product of something other than itself and consciousness being a product of man’s head, appears as the producer. According to them this is the inversion of order between copiousness and material conditions. Explanation of material practice from consciousness is inversion of the reality that consciousness is determined by material practice. German ideologists were fighting against the illusions of consciousness which they believed, constituted the real chains for men and women instead of fighting against the German social and political reality. This inversion  is not just the epistemological distortion produced by consciousness but its origin lie in reality itself – upside down standing on its head and hence needs to be set right by turning it upside down.

 There are two inversions – inversion of consciousness and the inversion of the objectified social practice. The former is ideology and the latter, alienation.  

All that is real is rational; and all that is rational is real – philosophical benediction to despotism and everything.

In the course of its development reality proves to be necessity—Monarchy – real/unreal; colonialism; Tzar; socialism etc. TINA.

Moribund reality being transformed into a new viable reality, “peacefully if the old one has enough intelligence to go to its death without a struggle; forcibly if it resists this necessity. Thus Hegelian proposition turns into its opposite through Hegelian dialectics itself”.[SW;587]. The proposition of rationality of everything which is real implies all that exists deserves to perish. This implicit rejection of the eternity and absoluteness of truth is essentially the rejection of the theory of final truth that once discovered can be remembered by heart through generations.

“Truth lay now in the process of cognition itself, in the long historical development of science, which mounts from lower to higher levels of knowledge without ever reaching, by discovering so-called final truth, a point from which it can proceed no further, where it would have nothing more to do but fold its hand and gaze with wonder at the absolute truth to which it has attained.”

It holds as true for philosophical knowledge as for any other knowledge and practical action. All successive historical systems are transitory stages in the endless course of development of human society from lower to higher , each stage is necessary.

The Feuerbachian materialism claims that the reality is wholly or basically material. The Essence of Christianity placed materialism at the center.  Nature exists independent of all the philosophy. Nothing exists outside nature and man and the concept of higher being/supreme power created by religious fantasies are the fantastic reflections of our own essence. Due to inability to look at the history as a process, he did not want to abolish but perfect the religion to be absorbed in the philosophy. Marx saw in Feuerbach’s criticism of religion proposing the man as the highest being for man forms a starting point for a truly revolutionary philosophy. His claim that Hegel had reversed  the role of subject and predicate treating man as an attribute of thought leads Marx ‘to turn Hegel on his head’ and his genetic method of inquiry into genesis and function of social institutions was carried forward by Marx in materialist interpretation of history.

Dialectical Materialism does away with exclusion. It considers reality to be a dialectical unity of the both with the primacy to the material world. Marx reverses Hegel’s primacy and absoluteness of ideas and explains that the reality is neither a static substance nor an abstract idea but a causally connected totality, internally unified and contradictory. Dialectical materialism rejects the absoluteness or primacy of ideas and unlike mechanical materialists does not reduce the ideas to matter as their ultimate identity.  Reality is dialectical and contradictory. Its contradictions put it in the process of motion bringing about evolutionary quantitative changes and when these contradictions are matured, revolutionary qualitative changes with genuine novelty take place and lead the history into a new epoch. In this sense, the laws governing nature society and human thought are dialectical and science attempts to discover them. Capital as the scientific study of capitalism discloses that the bourgeois society has a material base, its economic structure with irreconcilable contradiction and their gradual intensification would inevitably produce a revolutionary transformation of the whole society from capitalism to socialism. In the Capital, Marx attempt to formulate such laws. Dialectical Materialism holds that material and ideal are opposites in a unity and that the matter is primary and not the mind. Matter can exist without mind but not the vice versa. Mind historically emerged from matter and remains dependent and acts upon it.  For example, specific natural sciences natural sciences form a unified hierarchy with physics as the base but are not reducible to physics. Physics gives the idea of mind-independent reality! The dialectics asserts that this concrete reality neither static nor a thing of undifferentiated unity but a  differentiated, dialectical unity of contradictory opposites and their conflict is the driving force of constant, progressive change. The laws of Dialectical materialism characterize the whole reality and hence cannot be put in the category of classical notion of philosophy dominated by normative epistemology. Engels claims in Anti-During that philosophy has been superseded by science but theorizes theoretical thinking that seeks “to bring the individual spheres of knowledge into the correct connection with one another. In doing so, however natural science enters the field of theory and here the methods of empiricism will not work, here the theoretical thinking can be of assistance.”  But in this non-empirical theoretical thinking, “the interconnection are not built in the facts but discovers in them, and when discovered to be verified as far as possible by experiment. [1st 100:248-9] Theory constructs the concepts of the interconnections but does not constitute the interconnections, which exist independently of the theory, in material reality.

Basic laws of dialectical materialism can be summed up as:

  • Law of dialectical constitution and contradictions of the reality, i.e. the law of unity of opposites.
  • Law of transformation of quantity into quality; gradual evolutionary changes give rise to revolutionary quantitative changes.
  • Law of negation of negation; one opposite negates the other and in turn is negated by an advanced historical development, which is different from, but, preserves the elements of both.
Ish Mishra , Associate Professor, Dept. of Political Science, Hindu College, University of Delhi

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