Marxism-Leninism is the ideology of the working class, that class which is daily being degraded, economically displaced and exploited. From our oppression stems many ideas – some which seek to escape the cynicism that stems from our alienation, and others which seek to grasp the situation for what it is and use the knowledge as a means of guiding ones practical revolutionary activity.
The latter justly describes the philosophical core of the Marxist-Leninist ideology, known as dialectical materialism. What is dialectical materialism? What features distinguish it from other philosophical outlooks and why must it be studied?
Dialectical materialism provides the progressive political activist, the scientist and the downtrodden workers with a point of view that is irreconcilably opposed to all understandings which reduce life to superstitious conclusions. In a word, it is a scientifically-oriented philosophy and a method of cognition that denotes the most general laws of motion and development of physical reality. A keen understanding of dialectal materialism is an indispensable weapon for any progressive, for it instills us with a need to understand the concrete conditions that face us. It teaches us to consider all sides of a situation and allows only sober analysis of the present, past and future.
Without it, we are bound to find ourselves in the dark, falling into one-sided and idealistic conclusions which can only hinder those willing to combat the real enemies of the working class. Its fruits are grandiose in any field it might be applied, be it science or politics – it is a light that guides us through the fog. It is for this reason that dialectics must be taught. We will attempt to give the reader a simple and clear exposition of the fundamentals of this scientific method beginning with a brief history and explanation of its two component parts; philosophical materialism and the dialectical method.
2.) MATERIALIST PHILOSOPHY
Materialism is the school of philosophy which asserts the primacy of physical reality. All which we can perceive around us as well as ourselves is objective; it exists outside of us and is independent of our perceptions and ability to experience it. For materialism, all phenomena has a physical or objective reason for occurring. Even though we may not be able to understand the cause of said phenomena immediately it does not mean that it is unknowable. Materialism excludes the intervention of direct human consciousness, ghosts, spirits, the alignment of the stars, a voodoo curse or some supreme being in the physical happenings around us. Reality does not know such things. The lack of evidence to support such claims coupled with new scientific discoveries occurring daily, more and more discredit the possibility of such superstitious conclusions. Many years ago, when science limited itself to the mere categorization of things in nature, it was believed that God was the source of all life on the planet and the multitude of species we see today have always existed. Darwin’s challenge to this widely-believed notion guided him to the scientific theory of evolution and the idea that animals, too, go through a constant process of adaptation and change. Fossils prove the existence and evolution of species over time, which left little room for superstition once our understanding of biology grew.
For the materialist, the more our knowledge grows the more we come to realize that the world around us has a rational and material cause. The materialist outlook trains us to appreciate the time we have on Earth to the fullest, for it is the only place and only consciousness we know. Without the notion of metaphysics we are thus compelled to change the world we live in to fit our needs instead of hoping for an afterlife or a heaven, and dedicate ourselves to the work that is required to liberate ourselves in this reality. Such is the materialist philosophical outlook.
There are those who stand against philosophical materialism. In fact, it may be said that the whole history of philosophical development is categorized between two philosophies: materialism and idealism.
What is idealism? Idealism is the notion that our thoughts or “essence” is primary. Reality is either the creation of a God or an absolute idea (objective idealism) or that reality is nothing more than our individual experiences and perceptions (subjective idealism). The major shortcoming of this school of philosophy is that it either refuses to recognize the objectivity and independence of reality to man, or if it does recognizes reality, idealism sees it as the creation and will of supernatural something that we cannot comprehend. In a word; it seeks to replace objective reality with a fake or imagined one. The consequences are clear – in reality there are laws governing the universe such as gravity and consequence. A fine example would be an organism needing subsistence. People need to eat, and if they don’t they will die. If reality was merely a creation of our subjective experiences and perceptions, wouldn’t it be enough to simply will ourselves out of the need to eat? In order to fly, can we simply convince ourselves that gravity is a myth? The notion exposes its own absurdity.
For the materialist, our ideas are nothing more than physical reality reflected on our minds through our senses. Ideas do not simply come out of a vacuum; they are the culmination of experiences and perceptions we collect from day to day life. In order to cook, we must first learn how for the simple fact that we are not born with such knowledge. We would do well to point out that the brain (which is the source of our consciousness) is also made out of matter. Thought is the result of a physical process taking place within our brain.
There are many people in the world who follow the idealist world outlook. We’re quite confident that any reader can recall the tale, be it a movie or a child’s story book, where through strength of will or an overly optimistic mindset the protagonist emerges victorious. Simply believing they would make it got them to where they needed to go. While it cannot be denied that an optimistic mindset can lead us to practical and fruitful activity, mindset alone is not the only factor in the unfolding of reality. When one invests so much weight into the capabilities of the human mind, one inevitably falls into a one-sided consideration; it teaches us not to look at things for what they are, but for how we perceive them to be. In other words, “mind over matter.” The mind does not create and cannot control objective reality.
We live in a class society where members of the working class are oppressed – the capitalist media and scholars are always trying to blur the distinction between reality and fiction, for if we were to realize that the capitalists wealth is founded upon our labor there is little chance we would allow this society to continue.
Human cognition is a complex thing. It’s tempting to fill in the gaps between issues we don’t fully understand with mystical answers, such as explaining earthquakes with the presence of evil spirits rather than the shifting of tectonic plates. It’s for these reasons a materialist outlook is so important – it leads us to understand how things actually are so we can change them for the betterment of ourselves.
Things do not exist for their own sake, outside of our grasp. Things exist and they can be understood and used for our own advancement. Only with a materialist outlook combined with a dialectic method can we better grasp the world around us. This begs the question; What is the dialectic method?
3.) THE DIALECTIC METHOD
Dialectics was initially a particular kind of dialogue invented in Ancient Greece in which two or more people holding different points of view about a subject seek to establish the truth of the matter by dialogue with reasoned arguments. (1) Today dialectics denotes a mode of cognition which recognizes the most general laws of motion, contradiction and new development. There exist four “laws” to the dialectical method. They are;
1) Everything is in a constant state of motion, development and change.
2) Everywhere there exist opposing forces which are mutually exclusive yet cannot exist without the other. Their conflict results in movement.
3) Change occurs suddenly, all at once. A quantitative amount of something results in a qualitative change (a “breaking” point).
4) Development moves in spirals, from lower to higher planes of development.
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (or Hegel for short) was the first to convert dialectics into a comprehensive (more or less) system of thought. For Hegel, dialectics was a process occurring in the human mind. In Marx’s words:
“To Hegel, the life process of the human brain, i.e., the process of thinking, which, under the name of “the Idea,” he even transforms into an independent subject, is the demiurgos of the real world, and the real world is only the external, phenomenal form of “the Idea”. (2)
The Hegelian dialectic of course, suffered majorly from the fact that it was founded on a idealist basis. Karl Marx was one of the first to recognize this. Judging Hegel’s system from a materialist standpoint he concluded that all ideas have their rational, material source of origin. In Marx’s words:
“The mystification which dialectic suffers in Hegel’s hands, by no means prevents him from being the first to present its general form of working in a comprehensive and conscious manner. With him it is standing on its head. It must be turned right side up again, if you would discover the rational kernel within the mystical shell.” (3)
Thus, by combining the materialist philosophical outlook with Hegel’s dialectical method we come to what is referred to as dialectical materialism.
4.) DIALECTICAL MATERIALISM
Dialectical materialism is the recognition of a transient nature – a physical reality in constant motion and change. What makes dialectical materialism a revolutionary scientific method is that it excludes all static states, all metaphysical views of reality, all one-sidedness and inflexibility. Because it recognizes the concrete and present side of things, at the same time it acknowledges that this present state is bound to end. For dialectal materialism, the only absolute is that there are no eternal absolutes. If we apply this to capitalist society, with all its multitudes of forms, processes and contradictions, it is easy to see why the Marxist-Leninist outlook is degraded by the capitalists – because it boldly proclaims that they and their system of oppression are numbered. Nothing in nature exists forever and neither will the capitalists.
5.) THE UNIVERSALITY OF NATURE
“The real unity of the world consists in its materiality, and this is proved not by a few juggled phrases, but by a long and wearisome development of philosophy and natural science.” — F.Engels
According to the materialist premise that the world surrounding us is objective and not subjective, it follows that all forms of matter and their various processes are physical. The essence of the above quote is thus; because everything exists in matter and one of the fundamental laws of physics is cause and effect, we can conclude that every phenomena in nature occurs for a physical reason. Nature is thus unified.
Effects are the predetermined consequence of a cause. If we drop a rock into a pool of water, it sinks to the bottom. The mass of the rock has greater density than that of the water, and therefore it sinks below the surface. Not every effect rigidly follows a certain cause. If we take smoking cigarettes for an example, the habit has the effect of lung cancer. While it is true and proven that smoking does cause lung cancer, it does not necessarily follow the person will always develop lung cancer. Some other factors may interfere; perhaps the smoker passes away before lung cancer can develop, perhaps he does not smoke enough for his lungs to be adversely effected. In order for a cause to have the intended effect, all conditions must be met. If certain conditions are not met, it is likely that some other casual cause may interfere with the first. Dialectical materialism recognizes that there are effects which occur out of necessity (i.e. species adaptation) and that some effects are causal and happen on accident.
One of the fundamental ways of properly applying dialectical materialism is being able to examine issues objectively and from all angles, to see all the factors that give rise to a particular event, as well as the direction the events will lead, and other factors that may develop.
6.) NATURE KNOWS NO REST
Motion is the mode of existence of matter. Never anywhere has there been matter without motion, nor can there be. As we mentioned earlier, everything in nature is transient, finite, and in motion. Matter cannot exist without motion. Everything has its beginning and its end. People are born, grow and eventually pass away. Stars such as our sun eventually begin to die, either slowly burning out or self-destructing. Species evolve, adapt, or go extinct. Rain falls from the clouds, evaporates back into the clouds where it will once again rain. Human society is also part of nature and is therefore subject to the same laws.
Human society began in primitive communism and eventually tribal relations. As society grew and the division of labor became more complex, classes formed and slave society was born. This kind of society also passed away as the production of goods became so efficient that it was now possible to produce goods for the sole purpose of exchanging them on the market – capitalism was born.
Despite the fact many claim capitalism is immortal, that it is the highest form of human society, the indisputable fact remains that not even capitalism will last forever, for capitalism too, is part of nature and nature knows no final state. This is the most important issue regarding Marxism-Leninism and capitalism. We know that capitalism will come to an end for nature knows no rest.
Humanity faces two choices: either we consciously work towards a system where the productive forces of society are the common property of the working class, or capitalism plunges itself into destruction and threatens the existence of the human race. We are aware of the laws around us and it is precisely that awareness (dialectical materialism) that grants us the ability to do something about it, to make sure things play out in our favor – for the power of knowledge is the power of change.
7.) THE UNITY OF OPPOSING FORCES
The principle governing all growth and development is the idea of opposition and contradiction. Two mutually exclusive forces which at the same time cannot exist without each other has been a common theme in many philosophies for a long time (i.e. yin and yang) exactly because such processes occurring around us reflect this concept upon our minds.
Applying this concept is important to dialectic though. Such contradictory struggles are not always obvious to us. There are simple ones, such as hot and cold, wet and dry, high and low, light and dark. These concepts are familiar to us and none of these opposites can exist without the other. We would do especially well to emphasize that not all struggles and contradictions are so simplistic.
To better elucidate this concept, let us take the example of a fish that instinctively tries to live so that he may continue to populate his species. There is of course a contradiction to life (life is our “thesis”), and that is death (death with be our “antithesis”). In the course of its life, the fish is surrounded by hostile elements – predators, unfitting temperature, lack of food – all of which are the embodiment of the antithesis. If our fish is wise, he may be able to overcome these trials long enough so that it can breed and continue the precious life cycle. At times he will be successful, others he will fail. The development of the course of his existence depends on how well he is able to adapt. How will this end? We know it must at some point. The will to live and the need to die will eventually come to its dramatic conclusion. This brings us to the next fundamental “law” of dialectical materialism.
8.) QUANTITATIVE CHANGES LEAD TO QUALITATIVE FORMS
The basis of quality into quantity is simple; a certain amount of something will result in a change of appearance or form. Returning to the life of our fish, if his adaptive capabilities are bountiful, we will see a qualitative change in his mode of living. He will grow and produce offspring. On the inverse; if the conditions that would otherwise kill the fish are overwhelming, he will meet an untimely end.
If we take another example such as water, we see that if we add or subtract a certain amount of heat eventually the water will change its qualitative form from a liquid into a solid (ice) or a gas (steam). Such changes are usually gradual and aren’t readily noticeable. Only when one opposite has quantitatively changed to the point where it is able to overcome the other opposite does the qualitative change become obvious.
Gradual changes always result in a crisis, a breaking point, where one opposite is negated by the other. When the qualitative change takes place, we call this a leap. If we have a balloon and continue to add air, the balloon will get bigger and bigger. One the one hand, the rubber can only stretch so far, while on the other hand we keep adding air. Eventually, the rubber will no longer be able to contain the air and a leap occurs where the qualitative form of the balloon changes from an object of childhood delight to a ripped piece of rubber.
Nature is rife with leaps. If we acknowledge this fundamental aspect of dialectical materialism it will be easy to see unfolding stride of nature to newer and higher forms – a concept that is especially important concerning the fate of human society.
9.) THE DEVELOPMENT OF NATURE FROM LOWER TO HIGHER FORMS
Progress is a fact of nature. We see new forms of matter in development always and everywhere, one coming into existence and the other one dying away. Let’s recall the concept of opposites. Both sides are mutually exclusive yet cannot exist without the other. When one of these opposites is negated and a leap occurs, the old form has died. We have reached a higher form of development. Still, these higher forms will contain the most viable aspects of the previous form. If we recall the transformation of liquid water into steam – on a molecular level, it is still water, but the added heat, which speeds up the movement of the atoms, results in a change of physical appearance, a newer or “higher” form of water.
Once again, let us look at modern capitalist society for an example of dialectal materialism in action. Two opposites exist; the working class and the capitalists. The worker must work in order to receive a paycheck that the worker then uses to buy things s/he needs to live. The capitalist, on the other hand, needs the worker so that s/he may create a valuable product or service that the capitalist can sell to make a profit. The capitalist gains by longer hours and less pay for the worker. The worker gains by more pay and less hours. These opposites have diametrically opposed interests, yet they cannot exist without each other.
Eventually, the poverty that is imposed upon the worker coupled with the realization of their position will lead to a breaking point. A revolution occurs, the capitalists are put to an end as well as their mode of production, and socialism is born. The productive forces themselves are retained and advanced, the means of production are commonly owned and a higher and more advanced form of human society is achieved.
While it is true things may stagnate, even regress, it is progress that always triumphs in the end. It is on these grounds that we should always combat against all things reactionary, be it in politics or science. To go backwards goes against one of the fundamental laws of reality and can only hinder our species.
10.) DEVELOPMENT ALWAYS OCCURS IN SPIRALS
When things reach a higher form, they carry aspects of the old but in a more advanced compilation. These advancements aren’t always clear. The seed from a tree, for example, will fall from the tree and into the ground. From there, assuming conditions are ripe, it will begin to take root and change forms. Soon enough it will become a full-grown tree. Although it appears at first glance that it is simply a repetition of the previous tree, it is not. Firstly, the new and old tree are separated in time and space. Secondly, the direction of the roots, branches and grooves on the trunk are all different. The tree is “higher” in that it is a continuation of the old tree and that it is newer. The tree represents the same fundamental object, but on a “higher” basis.
Many have heard or abide by the notion that “history repeats itself.” The dialectical materialist method rejects this notion as a farce for the same reasons we do not consider the new tree to be an exact repeat of the old. True, parallels can be drawn from two points in history, just as parallels can be drawn from the two trees, but like the two trees, two points in history are separated in time and in space, and if we consider the specific economic conditions we will find that they are fundamentally different, for they follow different courses of development and are no more than continuations of older forms. They can’t possibly be exactly the same.
Likewise; communism as an economic system existed in primitive society, where the division of labor was next to nothing and all forms of production were held in common. We will again have communism, only this time it will be on a higher basis (advanced means of production, distribution, etc). It will, like in primitive communism, have a common ownership of the means of production and a greatly eroded division of labor but it will differ in space and time as well as specific characteristics such as labor methods. Thus we see, nature moves in spirals, not circles!
To summarize: dialectical materialism denotes a physical reality which is in a constant state of change due to inner strife and contradiction, always progressing to newer and higher forms. It lays bare the most general laws of development and motion – rendering us a great service in any field in which we choose to apply it. This scientific mode of cognition allows us to more readily understand the problems life presents us with.
If we are to understand that nothing lasts forever, it becomes our imperative to study where new developments are proceeding. The historical mission of the working class is thus elucidated – deriving from the exploitation that is present, armed with the knowledge of the inevitable collapse of the capitalist system, with an eye to the concrete political conditions stemming from class struggle, we are able to play our cards in such a manner that guarantees working class victory.
This is not to say dialectical materialism can take the place of specific sciences. With life and all its complexities, the most important thing for us to learn is how to apply dialectical materialism creatively. As was mentioned several times throughout this article, the answers aren’t always right in front of us. Dialectical materialism shows the most general laws of motion and development become more complex when dealing with specific processes. Understand phenomena in context, its particular features and circumstances. This is the only way we will grasp situations with the utmost depth and clarity, which in turn will guide us to the proper course of action. Dialectical materialism is our guiding light, a way for us to understand and change the world we live in – for the better.
1) Plato’s Republic
2) Capital vol.1, Afterword to the Second German edition.