Dialectical Materialism

Dialectical Materialism. Marx’s first statements of dialectical materialism were made in a group of works written between 1844 and 1848 under the stimulus of feuerbach’s materialist interpretation of Hegel and as incidents in Marx’s career as a revolutionary socialist. It should be noted that Marx used the word “materialism” In a specialized sense that may be misleading, since the word already had, and after Marx retained, a meaning quite different from Marx’s.


Prerevolutionary French works like Holbach’s System of Nature had used “materialism” to mean a philosophy which purported to depend on physics and chemistry, and which held that the mechanical explanations given by these sciences could be extended to all subject matters, vital, mental, and social. This conclusion was not at all shared by Marx, and in his Holy Family he distinguished his materialism sharply from the French materialism of the eighteenth century.

For Marx the qualification “dialectical” was the essence of the matter. Like Hegel he regarded mechanical explanation as suitable to physics and chemistry because these sciences deal with subject matters which involve no problems of historical development; Marx never believed their methods could be adopted by social studies. The dialectic he regarded as a logical method uniquely capable of dealing with a continuously developing subject matter and of revealing the “necessity” of its development.

Like Hegel, Marx also regarded mechanical explanation as belonging to a lower form of logic because it deals with a lower stage of reality. At a later date, to be sure, after the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species, Marx sometimes claimed for his theory of social development an affinity with organic evolution, and there is in fact a superficial similarity between the class struggle and natural selection. What impressed Marx on a first reading of Darwin’s book was the crude English method of development and this was indeed a characteristic reaction for a Hegelian?

For Darwin’s theory of evolution was strictly an empirical generalization-a causal theory of change with no implication of progress-while the dialectic was for Marx as for Hegel a law of logic. It provided an a priori theory of progress which was at once a principle of explanation and an evaluation.

Marx’s materialism in no way displaced the Hegelian assumption of an underlying force which is the hidden reality behind a multiplicity of more or less ephemeral manifestations and appearances. The metaphysical model appropriate to it was not mechanism but a kind of naturalistic vitalism.

At the same time there were several implications of materialism which were important for Marx. In the first place he tended to equate the word with scientific, and though he had no belief that social studies could imitate physics, he did believe that they could be made equally precise and certain. Hence he was readily convinced by Feuerbach that Hegelian notions like Absolute Spirit or the Spirit of the Age were merely imaginary, and that the real motive forces in the history of a society are its material conditions.

Marx wholly lacked the contemptuous arrogance toward science that Hegel occasionally displayed. Indeed, one gains the impression that the native bent of Marx’s mind was essentially matter of fact and empirical; few politicians have buttressed their policies with a body of historical and economic scholarship equal to Marx’s.

Perhaps it was this quality of mind that imparted a kind of vagueness to the sweeping generalizations of Marx’s philosophy. Sometimes expressions like tendencies that work out with an iron necessity toward an inevitable goal which occurs in the Preface to Capital are used as if they were sheer dogmas, buy again they may be used as if they were suggestive working hypotheses.

Sometimes he speaks as if dialectical materialism were a formula that could be applied mechanically to any period of history, but at other tames he protested violently against this way of using it. And though he might be very free in making predictions, he was also free in making exceptions to them.

Thus he could say that revolution was inevitable but also that it might not occur in England or the United States; or he could assert that capitalism was a necessary stage of social development but he could also entertain the idea that perhaps on Russia socialism might grow directly from the village communities, In general the dialectic imparted a looseness to Marx’s logic that prevented him from distinguishing between probability and rigid implication, or from recognizing that necessary statements are characteristically conditional.

In the second place materialism implied for Marx a radical rejection of religion, indeed a militant atheism. Since religion is unquestionably one of the great conservative social forces, materialism had for Marx, as for many others, a connotation of radicalism. The dissident Hegelianism with which Marx was allied had already produced, in 1835, David Friedrich Strauss’s Life of Jesus, in its day regarded as a scandalous book because it construed the Scriptural story as merely myth. And though the implications of Hegel’s philosophy had been in general conservative, Marx was convinced that its correct implication is revolutionary.

For the dialectic can be taken as a solvent of every supposed absolute truth and every transcendent value, since it shows them to be relative-social products that grow up in the life of a community in the course of its temporal and historical evolution. All such so-called truths, Marx concluded, are fictitious supports for whatever class controls a society and exploits its subordinate classes.

Religion supplies imaginary or fantastic satisfactions that misdirect any rational effort to find real satisfactions. Thus Christianity, with its distinction of soul and body, imparts to men a double life and offers the imaginary joys Of heaven as a solace for the real miseries of this life. It is the opium of the people, a soporific that prevents the oppressed from making any effort to better their lot by resisting their exploiters. Materialism meant for Marx, as it has continued to mean for Marxists, an anti-religious secularism regarded as the precondition of any thoroughgoing social reform.

The third meaning that materialism and the dialectic had for Marx was the suggestion of a new and more far-reaching revolution. The French Revolution had indeed abolished feudalism, as Hegel said, put the natural rights of man which the revolutionists claimed as its consequent are no more absolute than the dogmas of religion.

Nor can Hegel’s spiritualized state be the ultimate synthesis that the dialectic requires. Beyond the freedom of the democratic republic, though this is indeed the highest form of middle-class society, and beyond the state as it has yet evolved, is a higher form of society in which the state will be superseded, and to reach this higher stage a new revolution is required, a social revolution as contrasted with the political revolution that has already occurred. In the past, revolutions have transferred power from one class to another but they left the fundamental abuse, the power to dominate and exploit.

Like Christianity the political revolution leaves men still with a double life, imaginary freedom and real servitude. For the root of servitude is not political; it lies in a system of production which permits one class to monopolize the means of production and in the division of labor which private ownership entails.

Beyond the political revolution, therefore, there is the social revolution which by socializing production will wholly unite the man with the citizen and will once for all uproot the sources of exploitation and of social inequality. And as the middle class was the active force that produced the political revolution, so the proletariat, the product of middle-class dominance and the final class below which no exploited class remains, is the force which by freeing itself will free society, and by abolishing social inequality can create a classless society.

The division of labor implies the contradiction between the interest of the separate individual or the individual family and the communal interest of all individuals who have intercourse with one another… For as soon as labor is distributed, each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape . . . while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow.

Thus in the last resort materialism had for Marx an ethical meaning the root of social inequality is economic; by comparison all political reform is superficial, leaving the source of inequality untouched; and only by abolishing private ownership can any substantial change be made; and by this change the whole inequitable structure of society will be changed at once The classless society is both the final goal of social development and also the logical next step beyond the middle class freedoms already achieved by the middle-class revolution. For Marx, as for Hegel, the unlimited relativism which the dialectic seems to impose on history is crowned by a last and absolute end to which his philosophy will show the way.
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