What is dialectical materialism?

Since the beginning of recorded history, people have been striving to answer essential questions about nature and human society.

In earlier times, almost all events in nature were attributed to divine beings or a godlike force. The existing social order that governed the relations between people was explained as part of the same natural order. Things were as the gods or god wanted them to be. While this message may have been beneficial for the ruling classes whose clergy preached that the division between the haves and have-nots was god’s will, mystical and impalpable concepts don’t shed any scientific light on human existence or why things actually happen.

Marxism is the science of revolutionary social, economic and political change. As with any science, the theory behind it—the formulas and calculations used to form scientific conclusions—is important to understand. Dialectical materialism is the theoretical foundation of Marxism.

“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,” Fredrick Engels wrote in “The End of Classical German Philosophy.”

Dialectical materialism as a methodology is the combination of dialectics and materialism. It shows that changes in society are not necessarily linear; that history moves forward in fits and starts. Understanding this term necessitates an examination of its component parts.

What is materialism?

Materialism argues that the actual reality of the surrounding world determines the way people think and what they believe. In contrast to religious and other “idealist” philosophies, Marx’s materialist conception of history asserted, “it is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.” (Karl Marx, Preface to “A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy,” 1859)

Historical materialism is the philosophical opposite of idealism. It is directly opposed to idealism, the notion that material reality is created by what people believe or perceive in their minds. Marx also asserted that in all class societies the dominant ideas are the ideas of its ruling class. Racism, sexism, homophobia and national chauvinism are the ideas that the masses of people assimilate from the ruling class, which benefits from the promotion of those ideas.

We’ve all heard the basic idealist argument: society won’t change until people’s ideas change. On that line of thinking, activists need to do only educational work or teach in schools.

Materialism shows that the process of humanity’s social development is tied directly with the development of production and technology. Production is the expression of humanity’s ongoing relationship with the world. It is a manifestation of the never-ending battle for survival. Every living organism struggles to survive and thrive, whether simply defying cold weather, eluding predators, searching for food or working in a factory.

Of course, not everyone’s material reality is the same. For the working class, the struggle for basic needs occupies a greater part of life. For the capitalist class of owners, material reality consists of luxury gained by virtue of their social position within the exploitative capitalist economy.

This material reality, according to the materialist worldview, determines how people think about the world.

Materialists would reply to those activists who want to change people’s ideas: yes, we want to change people’s ideas. But the only way to do that is to change the material conditions—the way society is organized. In the process of engaging in revolutionary struggle, and eventually in building a new society, people’s ideas definitely will change.

The laws of change

Dialectical thought is merely the reflection of objective dialectics: laws governing the development of nature, the laws of uninterrupted change or, as Darwin discovered, the laws of evolution. According to this view, change occurs in the struggle between opposites. Nothing exists without opposition. When opposites confront each other, changes occur.

A central law in dialectics is the transformation of “quantity into quality”—that a change of the amount (quantity) will eventually bring about a material change in the whole make-up of something (quality).

One of the most practical examples of the transformation from quantity into quality can be seen in nature with water. A change in the temperature of water is a change in quantity. If the temperature gets colder, but is still above freezing, the water stays in liquid form. As the temperature continues to drop, the water eventually will freeze. At that point, the water has changed to ice—from liquid to a solid state. The cause of the change is the drop in temperature; the change from liquid to solid is a qualitative change. In the other direction, when water heats and boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit it passes through a qualitative alteration and becomes steam.

In society, social change occurs in the conflict between opposing classes—in capitalist society, between the working class and the capitalist class. The conflict breaks out on a day-to-day basis—protests, strikes, pickets and so forth. But when these protests come together in a united political movement against the capitalist class, a quantity of struggles can bring about a qualitative change—a revolution.

The analysis incorporated in dialectics, combined with materialism, is the basis for the Marxist view of the world.

Dialectical materialism: a science of revolutionary change

Marxism is a living science, made of both theory and practice. Its theoretical underpinnings can be applied not only to history but also to current events to show Marxism’s continuing validity and relevance as a way of analyzing the world.

Both liberals and conservatives argue that people have to work within the capitalist system to try to salvage it. They don’t want to destroy the system and make something new.

Religion similarly argues that people are not the main force for change. It attributes change to a divine power, offering hope for change in an afterlife. But dialectical materialism shows that both notions are false.

Marxists understand that the material conditions in the United States, as elsewhere, shape political consciousness. And yet political consciousness is not mechanically and statically determined. As the contradictions in capitalist society grow quantitatively, large numbers of people are compelled to fight back. The catastrophic war in Iraq and the “natural” catastrophes of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, for instance, compel people to go into the streets and struggle for change. When this happens, revolutionary organizations can help shape a new consciousness that breaks with the rotten, racist and corrupt ideology of the capitalists.

We strive to point out that it is material contradictions that exist under capitalism that lead to the dialectical resolution of these contradictions. The capitalists themselves create the conditions necessary for the socialist revolution that will bring about better social conditions for people here and all over the world.