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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 11, New Delhi, February 27, 2021

Dialectical Materialism: The People’s Philosophy | Abraham Joseph

Saturday 27 February 2021

by Abraham Joseph *

What is dialectical materialism? Considerable scepticism and doubts have been raised over the years regarding the meaning and relevance of dialectical materialism. In fact, the continuous assault on dialectical materialism has been an ongoing project of a class society unable to explain the contradictions of capitalism and the progressive development of human history. No socially conscious individual can ever deny the relevance of dialectical materialism, a philosophy that provides daily inspiration for millions of working people in this country. If Newton’s law of gravity is a scientific truth rooted in objective reality so is dialectical materialism as the law of social development.

Nevertheless, the meaning and relevance of dialectical materialism and the role of Marxist philosophy in aiding the working class of a country understand the contradictions inherent in the capitalistic mode of production have to be the subject of social discourse. This is no theoretical endeavour or intellectual pastime in the abstract.

As Marx quotes in his Eleventh Theses On Feuerbach, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it”. If the working class is to play its historic role in ushering in socialism, dialectical materialism is the world-outlook (philosophy) that must guide this function. Thus, a sound understanding of dialectical materialism is indispensable for the transformation of the moribund capitalist system to the next stage of historical development.

Naturally, all possible efforts must be made to correctly grasp the true meaning and nature of dialectical materialism in the absence of which the working class will be at the mercy of hostile bourgeois worldviews that can only confuse and mislead the masses towards accepting the inevitability of the existing capitalistic mode of production and consequently the “end of history”.

Attempts to deny the existence of objective laws that govern social reality is part of the bourgeois worldview. The correct understanding of reality can only be based on a scientific process rooted in objectivity. If nature is governed by objective laws, so is social reality. Dialectical materialism rejects the artificial dichotomy between nature and society and argues for the objectivity of social relations based on specific laws of social development. Seeking to harmonise man with society and society with nature, dialectical materialism is the theoretical and practical instrument necessary to understand the laws of social development.

Materialism is the worldview that puts “matter” before “ideas”. This is in direct contrast to idealism, the class viewpoint that puts “ideas” before “matter”. The notion that reality is rooted in nature and human society is an indispensable part of nature lies at the heart of Marxist philosophy and the materialist worldview. Humans as individuals are connected with this social reality and consequently retain an inseparable bond with nature. Engels in his work, The Dialectics of Nature highlighted this position with utmost clarity and precision. The creation a rift between man and nature is the hallmark of all idealistic philosophies and serve the purpose of “ideology” to blur or hide the true essence of social reality.

Capitalism as a world view and mode of production exemplifies this rift and reflects this contradiction in its most extreme form. Thus, the conflict between man and environment, individual and society, form and essence, technical sophistication and human welfare and struggle between classes among others while true in a primitive sense for all historical stages acquires its most potent form under capitalism where these distortions are given abstract explanations as opposed to rooting them in concrete realities. These distortions exist despite the availability of science and the scientific method at man’s disposal for solving them. This also points to the inability of science under capitalism to solve man’s fundamental social problems notwithstanding its increasing technical sophistication leading to the conclusion that there is no necessary correlation between increasing scientific sophistication and human welfare in a class-based society.

 This also distinguishes capitalism from erstwhile modes of production like slave society and feudalism where social contradictions could only be answered through metaphysical and idealistic explanations without much scientific reasoning. The inability of the current epoch to solve fundamental social contradictions points to the limitation inherent in the capitalist mode of production. Thus, capitalism despite being the most scientific stage of human society so far is also at the same time the stage most susceptible to metaphysical distortions making the study of dialectical materialism a non-negotiable necessity for a scientific and naturalistic understanding of human society. This unity and struggle between opposing forces is the key to understanding the contradictions of capitalism and forms the most important law of dialectical materialism- the interpenetration of opposites or the struggle/conflict between opposites.

Dialectics refers to the science of totality, change and contradiction. It is the most general expression of the worldview that all phenomena must be studied in their totality, change and contradiction so as to distinguish the essence from the form-the most basic task of Marxist philosophy. However, the application of dialectics to the materialist worldview is what makes Marxism different from class philosophies that also employ dialectics in their own way to comprehend change. Hegel applied dialectics but limited its application to the Absolute Spirit/Idea. He rooted the cause of change in the consciousness of the rational man and not in the material realities of historical evolution. Marx saw through this limitation and proved the connection of change as a social concept rooted in the material conditions of man’s existence. To quote Marx, “Men make their own history but they do not make it as they please; they do not do under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living”.

The contradictions inherent in the capitalist system will not disappear on their own, nor will humans be in a position to transform the capitalist system on their own. However, with the application of objective laws of social development as gleaned from the natural process the link between man and history can be achieved through the process of change and transformation, which would usher in the next stage of social development.
What distinguishes dialectical materialism from rival bourgeois approaches is the scientific truth that the objective prevails over the subjective and the determination that social development can only be explained by objective forces and not by subjective ideas existing outside the realm of the nature-society paradigm. Thus, dialectical materialism is neither materialism without dialectics nor dialectics without materialism but the necessary blend of both explaining the progress of history and evolution of human society on terms that seek to iron out existing contradictions. Thus, the merger of man with society and society with nature, the ultimate naturalism that Marxism seeks to create are not possible under actually existing capitalism given the internal contradictions of the system and the progressive nature of social development to outgrow the said contradictions which are internal to a flawed system.

This also distinguishes dialectical materialism from positivism, empiricism, critical theory, psychoanalysis and post-modernism all of which root their analysis in subjective notions outside the nature-society paradigm seeking to reduce phenomena to isolated and independent elements divorced from the objective thereby confusing scientific analysis with subjective interpretation. This can only lead to a form of social nihilism where the working class gets no clear idea of the notion of truth closest to reality failing them in their quest to identify the correct theoretical foundation on which to base their struggle on. To avoid this confusion and obfuscation, Marx and Engels evolved dialectical materialism to help clarify the essence from the form and distinguish the concrete from the abstract- preconditions for the continuous development of history on materialist terms and raising the consciousness of man as a social being.

To conclude, one will have to accept that dialectical materialism is a people’s ideology. It seeks to help man understand the contradictions inherent in the current social epoch, harmonise the individual with the social and natural, and eliminate existing contradictions for a better future for everyone. It will remain relevant so long as man produces his means of sustenance and organizes socially for the said purpose.

* (Author: Abraham Joseph is an LL.M Alumni from National Law School of India University (NLSIU), Bangalore. Views expressed are personal.)

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