The Dialectic and why it matters

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Jeremy Philips, UCT Left Students Forum

Marx reworked Hegel’s dialectical system of idealism into one oriented around the material, in that it centres material conditions of the physical world over any psychological elements, relegating the psychological to contingency on the material. This dialectical system is what has become known as dialectical materialism and forms the philosophical basis for Marxism.

Dialectics takes as its starting point that the social world is in a constant state of change and flux–and that capitalism, while it powerfully structures human relationships, is itself the product of human activity that emerges out of the material world, including the natural world.

For this reason alone, it should be obvious why the people who run our society despise the very idea of dialectics. As Karl Marx put it in Capita Vol 1 l:In its rational form it is a scandal and an abomination to the bourgeoisie and its doctrinaire spokesmen, because it includes in its positive understanding of what exists a simultaneous recognition of its negation, its inevitable destruction; because it regards every historically developed form as being in a fluid state, in motion, and therefore grasps its transient aspect as well; and because it does not let itself be impressed by anything, being in its very essence critical and revolutionary.

Society appears stable and impervious to change

Even at those moments in history when society appears stable and impervious to change, the truth is that it is changing–all the time, though often in imperceptibly small ways. These “molecular” changes eventually pile up and give way to sudden ruptures and transformations–which can take the form of upheavals, wars and revolutions.

Historical materialism is ultimately an analysis of history and an understanding of the future through the use of the material dialectical system. Though capitalism may seem like a necessary element of society, it has not existed for time immemorial and cannot perpetually exist either – historical materialism is the theory that explains how capitalism came to be the hegemonic system that it currently is, and how it necessarily will come to an end.

Historical materialism can be applied throughout history on numerous levels, it is most typically explained through historical materialism is the rise and fall of slavery, the rise and fall of feudalism, and the rise and impending fall of capitalism. In this schema, slavery, feudalism and capitalism all necessarily encompass contradictions of opposing positions which are borne out of the way in which the system structures society and the subsequent implications thereof.

Historical materialism shows us how ancient slavery was overthrown because of the opposing needs of efficient labour and a dedicated army, and medieval slavery because of the opposing positions of the easy availability of slave labour and lack of efficiency in resource extraction by slave labour; it shows us how feudalism was overthrown due to the internal contradictions it encompassed of the opposing positions of the constructed aristocracy’s desire to assert status through the possession of foreign goods and the isolated nature of the feudal state; It also shows us the impending necessary end of capitalism due to the contradiction it engenders of the opposing positions of the capitalist class’ desire to perpetually accumulate and the working class’ discontent with the structure of society imposedby the capitalist class’ accumulation of wealth.

The dialectic shows us how capitalism will fall

Having established what the dialectic is, how Marx shaped it into dialectical materialism and applied it in through historical materialism; it is clear that it is critical for us to understand the dialectic so that we can understand the way in which history has progressed, and, as Socialists who are vehemently opposed to capitalism, the understanding of the dialectic shows us how capitalism will fall, and thus gives us direction for where in society we should look towards for the initiates of change and thus where we should focus our energies.

However, because the overthrow of capitalism is such a bold claim to make, and as Socialists it is such a critical prediction to us that informs all our political actions, it is important that we investigate it on all levels. Perhaps though, the most important level for such an investigation is in its philosophical underpinnings – a philosophical interrogation of dialectical materialism and its application in historical materialism.

The first is Hume’s correlation-causation argument. This argument basically asserts that in the case where one event (A) is subsequently followed by another event (B), it may seem as if the event A gave rise to the event B, however, it is not clear that there is any link between the two, and is just as possible that A and B are two distinct events that arbitrarily occurred consecutively.

As such, regardless of how many times B is directly preceded by A, one must be cautious in jumping to the conclusion that A definitely caused B and that it will necessarily always be the case that A will be followed by B. This argument typically is not applied to social analysis and is more prevalent in the discourses around scientific method; however, because historical materialism is in many ways a science of history using philosophical method, it is relevant to historical materialism.

Sartre and Fanon assert man’s freedom to make decisions for himself.

Historical materialism makes use of evolutionary precedent as a basis for predicting capitalism’s fall, arguing that capitalism is no different from the systems that preceded it, and will similarly be overthrown. But, by Hume’s argument, regardless of how it has been borne out through history, we must consider the capacity of the causal link between the class conflict, which is necessarily the result of capitalism’s internal contradictions, and the fall of capitalism.

Ultimately, this argument calls into question whether the internal conflict of slavery and feudalism were in fact the causes of their overthrow, which is ludicrous; but, more importantly, it questions the extent to which the precedent of slavery and feudalism’s overthrow through internal contradiction accurately reflects the impending overthrow of capitalism. This question is perhaps particularly pertinent to capitalism, as, as we have seen, capitalism is in many ways more dynamic and better-suited at adjusting to hostile conditions than the systems which preceded it.

The second philosophical critique of dialectical materialism and historical materialism is the assertion that historical materialism is too deterministic and people in fact have more autonomy than that which is afforded to them by the theory. Philosophers like Sartre and Fanon assert man’s freedom to make decisions for himself. This undermines Marx’s ideas that one’s political consciousness is generally determined by their surrounding material conditions, and the progression of humanity is beholden unto historical processes.

Is only the working class who have the power to change the structure of society

Marx argues that it is only the working class who have the power to change the structure of society, though, despite this unique power, the working class’ consciousness is limited to their lived experiences and their success in overthrowing capitalism is reliant on the conduciveness of the objective context to capitalism’s overthrow.

Marx’s dialectical materialism and historical materialism have been revised and reinterpreted away from a mechanical understanding to one which is more accommodating of individuals’ distinct capacities as a response to this critique. Nonetheless, the critique remains and forces us to reconsider which agents in society will be the catalysts of capitalism’s overthrow and what the nuances may be in the struggle towards Socialism.

Critiques are critical for us to refine our ideas

The dialectical system, Marx’s interpretation thereof through dialectical materialism, and his application of it through historical materialism, has briefly been traced here. It is clear why it is important for us to understand this, as it provides us with a framework by which capitalism will be overthrown, in which we are intimately vested as Socialists. Two philosophical critiques of Marx’s dialectical system have also been outlined here.

Such critiques are critical for us to refine our ideas. Certainty on such critiques, which are abstract and metaphysical to an extent, is absurd. As Socialists, the only clear certainty we have is the sheer inhumanity of capitalism. As such, we should definitely stick by Marx’s dialectical system as the clearest and most inspiring framework for the overthrow of capitalism, but we must accommodate and incorporate critique as far as possible, to ensure that, regardless of where the truth may lie, capitalism is overthrown.

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