by S. Williams
To many, the term “Dialectical Materialism” seems like jargon, a connection of two words which are both confusing and unfamiliar. Yet the concept is fundamental to understanding everything from the boiling of water to the revolutionary transformation of society.
To understand what dialectical materialism means, we often like to define both “dialectical” and “materialism,” as well as their opposites.
The basic idea of dialectics is that everything, from the smallest scale of the atomic structure to the largest scale of the universe, is going through a constant process of change. This change is caused by internal and external factors. Just like an atom is composed of positively and negatively charged particles, everything that exists is composed of two parts which have opposing tendencies or competing interests which are in contradiction with one another. The internal contradictions are the primary cause of change of the object as a whole. The internal contradictions need to be taken with the external factors which are also competing and contradictory, always in motion, always in development. This basic understanding of the natural and social world holds that nothing is permanent. It also holds that nothing is exactly the same as something else, whether one is comparing one pound of sugar to another, or one government to another, one can use the finest scale to determine that there is in fact a difference.
Dialectical thinking has its opposite in metaphysics, which believes that all things in the universe and their characteristics have always existed, just in different forms and quantities. Metaphysics sees things in absolute form, thus describing that greed and oppression have always existed in human society and that society just keeps repeating itself. This conception of history proposes external factors as the primary cause of change for objects, thus one can describe the development of society based on geography, rather than discussing the competing interests within society and how countries of similar geography can be on vastly different levels of development.
Materialism, which is different than the contemporary use of the term in relation to people who just care about wealth and luxury items, helps us to explain that people’s thoughts, characteristics, and actions are shaped by the material world around them, thus “being determines consciousness.” This is opposed to idealism, which is a belief that perception and mental thought determines one’s existence. Therefore, right-wing politicians may claim that people are homeless or poor because they decide to be. In an extreme, belief in creation of all matter by an eternal being is the ultimate realization of idealist philosophy.
From here, we can combine dialectics and materialism to mean that “everything is in constant change,” and that “our perception is based on the material world.” Dialectical Materialism uses these tools to assess the constant changes in society and to understand its development.
“Philosophers have only interpreted the world, the point however is to change it.” Karl Marx, one of the founders of dialectical materialism as the science behind understanding how revolutions happened, also believed that humans, beyond just understanding social phenomenon, have a primary role in changing the world around them.
The primary contradiction in capitalist society at its current level is the contradiction between the forces of production (the relationship of land, technology, and infrastructure to the profitability of human labor) to the relations of production (the small group of capitalists owning all of the factories, workplaces, and land, while the billions exist by selling their labor). The contradiction between the tremendous development of the productive forces and the backwards nature of such a small group controlling so much of society and using all of this development for their own needs for profit, is the basis for struggle which seeks to solve this contradiction. Understanding the class struggle, including the struggle of the oppressed, is understanding the motion in human society based on this contradiction of the forces of production and the relations of production. Our struggle against the 1% and the ruling class is the past and future history of humanity. Thus, “The history of all hitherto existing society is a history of class struggle,” as Marx put it at the beginning of his famous Communist Manifesto.
Dialectical Materialism, a science based on constant change and development, not dogma or eternal truths, shows us that capitalism has reached a dead end. While the wealth of the world has developed tremendously, those who benefit is too few. The transitory stage of socialism, which seeks to bring together the exploited and oppressed to run society and to create a new relation of production, represents the next stage of history, the next qualitative development of society. While socialist revolutions have taken steps backwards, we can use dialectical materialism to understand these contradictions and to assess the strengths and weaknesses, all the while knowing that socialism is the answer to capitalist exploitation and oppression. It is up to revolutionaries to work hard to build relationships with the workers and the oppressed to build this struggle for a new society, and to finally place capitalism in the dustbin of history.