Dialectical materialism is often described as one of the three main pillars of Marxism, along with historical materialism and Marxist economics. These three complement each other in forming an excellent way of describing society and the physical world, as well as how they relate to one another. While historical materialism analyses history from a materialistic perspective and Marxist economics obviously deals with the economy, dialectical materialism is the philosophical and scientific outlook which underpins Marxism. It is the language and method that Marxists use to analyse the world and as such, it can be applied to virtually any area of thought or research; be it the historical development of society or a specialised area of science. This makes dialectical materialism a very powerful tool which can be used to understand current events, from how they arose to how they might be resolved. So to a Marxist a proficient understanding of the philosophy of dialectical materialism and how it should be applied in different situations is critical.
The ideas of dialectical materialism, based on the best traditions of philosophical thought, are not a fixed dogma but rather a system of tools and general principles for analysing the world materialistically and scientifically. Words like materialism and materialistically are used a lot, and in a Marxist context materialism means that it is generally the material world and current physical conditions that influence both the actions and ideas of individuals and groups as a whole, rather than the other way about. The roots of dialectical materialism can ultimately be traced to the ancient Greek natural philosophy of atomism of Epicurus and Democritus and can be derived from that fact that everything that exists is material and is derived from matter, and that all matter is interconnected and interdependent.
There are many ways and viewpoints in which dialectical materialism can be understood, as befits a dialectical understanding of the world, but the main principle behind it is that nothing is static. Everything is in a constant state of change and flux no matter how stable or motionless it may seem, and over an infinite amount of time everything will, and must, transform or degrade. So according to this mode of thought, the idea that something is constant and will remain unchanged permanently is unmaterialistic and ultimately impossible. This can be seen in the realm of astronomy, a field where the tenets of dialectical materialism seem to be constantly verified. Objects such as stars, which were once thought to be infinite in time, were eventually shown to have lifetimes and are indeed not infinite.
Within a more terrestrial scope, this idea of constant flux can be applied to societies and regions around the globe. There is no country in the world where the working class is not in a continuous state of variation. In a single country at times it may be strong and proactive and at other times it may appear dormant and almost invisible on the surface; but in all periods there are ebbs and flows in the working class movement which will be influenced by certain events and the material conditions at certain times, such as an economic recession. The state of the working class may then go on to affect the conditions which affect its current state through actions such as mass strikes and so on; the processes and interactions between both can continue to influence each other. This is the essence of the dialectic nature of society and this also connects with historical materialism.
Dialectical materialism when viewed as a form of logic is always opposed to the more widely used and accepted mode of thought of formal logic that is prevalent among the bourgeoisie and general academia. Formal logic itself can ultimately be related to Aristotle of ancient Greece and this dogmatic way of thinking, in its rigidness, is a product of the time of its creation and its development in capitalist society. In formal logic an object A will always equal A. Whereas with dialectical materialism A will only equal A in the limit of abstraction, which we often enter into for the sake of functionality and simplicity in areas such as mathematics and physics. In dialectical materialism, however, we realise that despite this simplification, in reality A never equals A no matter how narrow you make the time interval between observations of it. This comes back to the idea of constant flux, where everything is in constant motion and as such is always changing, even if this change is almost undetectable. So in reality A equals A and at the same time it does not equal A, as A is constantly in the process of becoming something other than A, and it is this idea which formal logic in its stubbornness finds almost impossible to understand and implement in analysis. As such, when using formal logic one will always come up against contradictions in reality that cannot be easily solved and when these contradictions are finally overcome, they inevitably lead to even greater contradictions. When, however, using dialectical materialism the contradictions are not so much of a problem, rather they are expected due to the dialectical nature of the material world in which we live. This is a main reason why dialectical materialism is superior to formal logic when being used to understand the processes that are occurring all around us.
Aside from the ideas of everything having a materialistic basis and being derived from matter, that all matter is interconnected and interdependent, and that there is a continual flux of processes that at all times influence each other where necessary, there are three basic assertions that dialectical materialism makes that in many ways sum up these ideas and allow them to be applied to the physical world.
This first of these is: The Law of the Unity and Conflict of Opposites. In a very literal sense this law describes a situation seen in many dialectical processes of two or more opposing ideas or physical objects. Examples of this idea could be opposing class interests within society, such as those of the proletariat and bourgeoisie which will naturally be forced against one another. Or in the field of physics it could be used to describe the phenomena of electromagnetism, where there are positive and negatively charged particles which will attract oppositely charged particles and repel similarly charged particles which then leads to the creation of an electric current in closed circuits. The unity part of this law denotes the view that the opposites from various situations, once certain material conditions are met, can effectively remove or annihilate one another. Such as in society, following a successful revolution of the working class and the creation of the dictatorship of the proletariat (a commonly misunderstood phrase which means the working class democratically controlling society); with the eventual withering away of the state, the opposing class interests would also wither away due to the end of class society itself. In the case of physics, with the removal of any physical or potential energy barriers, equally and oppositely charged particles will collide to create a new particle or annihilate each other alongside the creation of energy. This effectively removes the influence of the opposite charges. This principle can also be applied in the opposite direction, in the creation of opposites in different situations and again with the correct material conditions.
The second assertion of dialectical materialism is: The Law of the Passage of Quantitative Changes into Qualitative Changes and Vice Versa. As this law states, quantitative changes can result in qualitative changes and in turn, qualitative changes can result in quantitative changes. A good example of this in practice is the process of boiling water. When boiling a body of water the temperature of the water must be raised to 100°C, or 373.15K, at the barometric pressure at sea level if you want to be specific. This is a quantitative change in the properties of the water. Once this temperature is reached the water undergoes a phase transition from a liquid to a gas. This can be considered a qualitative change in the properties of the water, and so this completes a cycle of this law.
The third law of dialectical materialism is: The Law of the Negation of the Negation. This statement neatly contains the idea of the constant change and flux of objects and processes mentioned previously. The negation of an object or property, usually caused by the said object’s or property’s antithesis, can in turn be negated itself so that the whole system can move on to a completely new state. This occurs due to the ever changing and dialectical nature of the world and events. The effects of certain incidents, such as an economic boom in capitalism, can cause living conditions of the working class to improve due to the more relaxed nature of the bourgeoisie towards reforms that the working class demands. So the working class will in itself become more relaxed and layers could possibly become less class conscious. If, however, the antithesis of an economic boom, an economic depression, causes the material conditions of capitalism to be almost reversed such that the bourgeoisie are forced to take away any reforms granted to the working class, then the living conditions of the working class will deteriorate accordingly and as such layers of the working class will become more radicalised and class conscious, and so on. This process will then continue according to the changing materialistic conditions of society and the confrontation of class interests, which will in turn influence each other.
These three laws of dialectical materialism and their associated concepts and applications form the backbone of the Marxist way of thinking. In the modern period, we as Marxists would say that formal logic is no longer able to progress science, or philosophy any further, as the contradictions that it has built up due to its very nature are becoming greater and greater. In a very similar way to the fact that Capitalism can no longer progress society forward as a whole due to its inherent failures. A good example of this is in the realm of cosmology. In cosmology, and in the physics community as a whole, the idea of the big bang dominates the general consensus of what created the Universe as we know it. While the idea of a massive explosion resulting in the Universe we see today is consistent with nearly all the observational evidence we have, formal logic breaks down when we try to explain what happened before the big bang. The idea that all the mass and energy in the Universe came from nothing more than the big bang, with nothing causing the big bang itself doesn’t feel like a satisfying answer. That’s because it isn’t materialistic at all. From our everyday experience we know we can’t get something from nothing and so as Marxists we would argue that obviously something must have existed before the big bang.
Formal logic in its rigidness finds it very difficult to link our current knowledge of physics with any new possible theories to explain the physical laws that could have existed before the big bang. This isn’t implying that dialectical materialism would allow us to answer these big questions easily, of course not, but it does allow a much easier theoretical link to be made due to its emphasis on change and its more flexible nature compared to formal logic. From a purely scientific point of view that’s where the strength of dialectical materialism lies; it allows the connection of seemingly disparate theories and ideas in a deeply profound and material basis.
One of the best demonstrations of the applicability of dialectical materialism and of the powerful insights it can give into physical processes is in the field of general relativity and gravitation. This area of science has been in the news a lot recently due to the first observational evidence of gravitational waves that was announced on Thursday 11th February.
The person who came up with our current understanding of general relativity and the force of gravity itself was Einstein. Einstein was able to do this through several factors. One of course was the material conditions into which he was born: a fairly wealthy middle class family that could afford to give him a good education. Another was the fact he possibly had a natural aptitude in science. This, however, is beside the point. The main factor was the analysis he employed when considering his thought experiments on gravity. Being a theoretical physicist he relied on theory more than observation and so having a good analysis of his ideas was vital. Of course he used dialectical materialism. Einstein wasn’t a Marxist but he did have many Socialist views and he did speak out against capitalism and the free market, so it’s no surprise he employed dialectical materialism in his work.
In general relativity, what Einstein brilliantly deduced in his field equations, that are a part of a larger set of partial differential equations, was that the force of gravity is paired with the energy and momentum of both matter and radiation; and it should be noted that the pairs of energy and momentum as well as matter and radiation and also interconnected and interdependent. The theory of general relativity states that gravity is paired with energy and momentum in that in the presence of matter or radiation, the curvature of spacetime is bent. If we can imagine such a thing as an empty universe, which of course dialectical materialism tells us is impossible, then spacetime would be perfectly flat and time and motion would move and change everywhere uniformly. Of course this isn’t the case and so every piece of mass and radiation in the universe is bending the curvature of spacetime. So that gravity is changing in our presence and as a result of this, the movement of matter and radiation is changing as well. Of course you need massive amounts of mass, like that of stars or black holes to see these effects easily but nonetheless it’s still occurring all the time.
Even more remarkable is that, as the name spacetime would suggest, even something as fundamental as time is affected by this process, as a consequence of the finite and unalterable speed of light in a vacuum in our Universe. So as mass or radiation moves, which both constantly do as a necessity of their existence, they not only change the gravitational field in their vicinity but also the passage of time for themselves relative to their surroundings. Another consequence of this is, is that as a mass moves it appears contracted and hence shorter relative to a stationary observer, and equivalently radiation appears gravitationally redshifted or blueshifted depending on the situation. Again this is happening to us all the time but we would need to be moving very close to the speed of light to noticeably see these effects, but they do happen and in the decades since Einstein first proved these effects theoretically, they have since been proven experimentally.
So we can see very clearly here that the most fundamental physical aspects of the Universe such as mass, radiation, the force of gravity; as well as other forces, energy, momentum and time are all interconnected and interdependent as dialectical materialism suggests. It is also thought now that the four fundamental forces in the Universe, which are, in order from weakest to strongest: gravity, the weak nuclear, the electromagnetic, and strong nuclear forces; are all different aspects of one singular force and are tied together in the hypothetical and aptly named Theory of Everything. These connections are things that dialectical materialism pointed towards long before formal logic acknowledged them.
Dialectical materialism is the language that Marxists use to communicate their ideas and utilise them to analysing the world and the material universe. Its universal applicability and flexibility make it an incredibly powerful tool and ultimately it is necessary for bringing about an international socialist revolution and an end to capitalism.