Marxism and Dialectical Materialism

At the foundation of Marxism is the quite unremarkable idea that change is inevitable. It can be studied, but not prevented. What sets Marxism apart is the way change is studied. Think of the infrastructure of Marxism, then, as based on an empirical methodology that operates to explain how things change. Marxism examines change, not piecemeal, but change in the aggregate — change in large, integrated systems. Under this rather large umbrella exist those “things,” those subtexts that adopt the method to explore changes in economics, history, politics, society, revolutions, etc. Most essays involving Marxism focus on one or the other of the subtexts, which is where the trouble begins, because typically, no explanation is offered as to how or by what method analysis is made or how conclusions, are drawn. The explainable methodology relied on by Marxism is called dialectical materialism. So, what is that?

The first word, “dialectical” you can think of as a dialogue, or conversation, i.e., you are in dialogue or conversation with something. The second word “materialism” reveals an important aspect surrounding the nature of the “something.” Materialism affirms that all the “somethings” you are in dialogue with are solid and real material things. There is absolutely nothing spiritual or ethereal about this dialogue.[i] It’s about the tangible and concrete things in your life. And by-the-way, when I say YOU, I refer to you individually, and universally, i.e., you as the city, state or nation you belong to.

How does this work?

Each day you (and your society) wake up to a new set of questions posed by your environment. The questions range from, “Do I walk or drive to work?” all the way to “Do I defend Ukraine?” The answers you provide will instantly change “things” into new things. That change in things offers you a brand-new set of questions to answer — and so on.

The conversation can be agreeable and peaceful, but sometimes the conversation will be laden with tension and become hostile. For example, a child may want a package of Twinkies on the top shelf while mom doesn’t want him to spoil his dinner. Mother and child are caught in a dialogue that is at cross purposes, or in the Marxist vernacular, they are trapped in contradiction. If the child accepts the ruling from his mother, the contradiction, while still present, slips back into potential and becomes inactive. On the other hand, the child may seek to circumvent his mother’s ruling by grabbing a chair to reach the top shelf and in so doing change his environment to one considerably more hostile and fraught with unhappy consequences.

While the illustration above serves to provide a simple grasp of the play of contradiction in dialectics, it is also somewhat misleading. Marxist dialectics, as well as Marxism in general, rarely focuses on the individual, except insofar as that individual represents the forces of history. Lenin, for example, once declared that his revolutionary leadership was only made possible because he stood at the vector of history and was propelled forward by its forces; he considered himself less a leader of events than he was an actor for historical forces. This is not to say that individuals have no role to play, but rather that these roles are very much contingent on the material forces of events. Ulysses S. Grant once observed that if it were not for the Civil War, his future would have been as a store clerk in the family business. In other words, we are all creatures of our time as well as its actors. And while we are all propelled forward by forces both great and small, Marxism concerns itself with the great forces. This stress on the “forces” of history rather than individuals acting in history is why Marxists prefer the term “contradiction” to “conflict”.

This brings us to a point where we should offer an example of contradictions as revealed through material dialectics. In a competitive capitalist economy, an industrialist can survive in a hostile environment only by suppressing cost while at the same time increasing production; bear in mind that a principle cost is wage labor. Obviously, in a complex economy there are many factors involved, but for the sake of the illustration, consider one of the more exacerbating and destructive paradoxes of a capitalist economy. Imagine a typical capitalist economy where all the industrialists put their foot on the gas when it comes to production, and their other foot on the brake when it comes to consumption. How is this crazy contradiction possible? For the entrepreneur, reducing costs often means suppressing the largest expense: wages. However, if industrialists refuse to pay good wages, who will have the money to buy the goods produced? The individual businessman, treating with his individual problem of wages, does not see the big picture, nor react to it, so he often misses the point that this contradiction underlies the long-standing problems of boom and bust for capitalist economies. Rectifying this paradox are the social safety nets and labor unions that prop up purchasing power and pull the capitalist foot off the consumption brake. The efforts of trade unions and welfare programs do a great deal by way of allowing the capitalist system to continue unsteadily forward.

Marxism, through material dialectics, is a technique that searches out the paradoxes that propel history forward. The methodology is far less foreign today than it was even fifty years ago, and consequently, for the sake of space, I have oversimplified. Below I offer several sources where this theme of contradiction and material dialectics is greatly expanded for edification.

Marx, Karl, The German Ideology

Mao, Zedong, On Contradiction

Engels, Fredrich, The Dialectics of Nature

Lenin, V.I. The State and Revolution, & Materialism and Empiriocriticism

[i] If you are interested in a more ethereal system, check out Hegelian Dialectics, but be prepared for a slog.

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William F. Pray

William F. Pray

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