Primer Red (Part 1): Dialectical Materialism

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By Ramsin Canon

This is the first in a series of primers on some basics of radical thought and history. Please share questions and suggestions for future discussions!

Every Labor Day, radicals rightfully take pleasure in pointing out to cliche-merchant politicians and media the radical roots of the U.S. labor movement, sharing stories of the socialists, communists, and anarchists who organized, fought, and often suffered to bring justice to working people.

This isn’t isolated to the labor movement. On issue after issue, we can cite our radical forebears who were years—often decades—ahead of the rest of society in advocating for justice. For example, Eugene Debs’ Socialist Party supported women’s suffrage since the party’s founding nearly two decades before American women finally got the right to vote. The Communist Party USA’s newspaper The Daily Worker began agitating for African-American integration into Major League Baseball in the 1930s, long before Jackie Robinson’s 1947 big-league debut. From anti-racism to reproductive rights to environmental justice, radicals are simply more often proven right by history. Why is this so often borne out?

It isn’t because of good moral instincts. It’s because of the Marxist method of analysis, dialectical materialism—a phrase you’re likely to hear over and over again if you’re interested in radical politics. And even if you haven’t, you’ve definitely come across the method. This way of thinking is a powerful tool in the radical’s utility belt, not just for intellectual debate, but for the street-level analysis of power we use in our day-to-day organizing.

There’s a huge body of philosophy and debate around dialectics and dialectical materialism, going back to the ancient Greeks. But it’s a pleasingly simple method: dialectical materialism understands systems by assuming the system is always in motion, and that it moves based on how opposed physical (or “material”) elements interact with each other (the “dialectics”—think “dialog”).

The way the physical world is ordered determines the way we experience that world. It isn’t our ideas that create systems; our ideas come from the systems. Dialectical materialism requires us not to start with abstract ideas and apply rules of logic, but instead to look at how the physical world is actually organized, and look at how competing forces interact to produce new conditions.

Marx and Engels were influenced by philosophers like G.W.F. Hegel and Ludwig Feuerbach, but also by scientists like Charles Darwin (Engels was particularly influenced by Darwin). In fact, Darwin’s theory of evolution is a good gateway to understanding the method.

When Darwin saw a finch’s beak on the Galapagos Islands, he tried to understand what physical forces would result in a beak of that shape by looking at the physical “history” of the ecosystem. Rather than just theorize about why the beak would be useful, he looked at the environment in which that animal developed; on one island of the Galapagos where hard seeds were plentiful, the finch evolved a more robust, powerful beak; on another, where insects were more prevalent, they developed more lithe beaks.

Darwin rejected the idea of “independent creation”; the finches must have all came from some starting point (an ancestor finch) and developed through separate, material processes of interaction. Each stage of finch had to develop, or evolve, from a previous stage of finch, with slight quantitative change (say, a one-millimeter thicker beak) over time resulting in a qualitative change (voila, a whole new finch!). The development is a struggle: as the beaks get stronger, so do the seed shells get tougher; the only way to get to a new, robustly-beaked finch is if along the way, you’re getting tougher-shelled seeds. This is the dialectic (back-and-forth) of material (physical nature).

Even though the change is gradual, it isn’t perfectly even; there are moments when it speeds up; in evolution this is sometimes called “punctuated equilibrium.” A new disease is introduced to the island that kills off the favored nesting tree of the finch, and many of them die; those with slightly stronger wings can get to the higher branches of a different tree, and they survive. Now the ecosystem looks qualitatively different. In human social terms, “punctuated equilibrium” can be thought of as revolution.

When dialectical materialism is applied to the changes of social systems over time, that’s often called “historical materialism.” Change doesn’t happen, radicals say, because of people’s abstract hopes and dreams, or because they heard good arguments. People experience conflict because of material conditions, and they act and react by trying to change the source of the conflict. Over time, these little fixes will actually only make the situation more unstable, because the underlying source of the conflict hasn’t gone away. That is when you get the big thunderclap, and the rate of change accelerates and old systems die.

You’ll often hear Marxists talk about “motion.” We are born into a society in motion that at any given moment looks indistinct from the moment before; over time, however, the push-and-pull between forces (seeds getting tougher and beaks getting stronger; resources getting scarcer and new methods of distribution of springing up) results in a total change of systems, and at key moments of stress or crisis, revolutions speed up the rate of change.

So there was no specific date when feudalism (basically a military system of hereditary privilege) collapsed and capitalism (a contractual system based on private property) emerged. But small crises arising from conflicts between the feudal military class and the productive trader/financier classes, over the course of centuries, exposed the weaknesses of the feudal system. Then, when the system became too unstable, a series of revolutions sped up the rate of change, culminating in the early 19th-century death of feudalism.

The French Revolution and its wars were a mass dying off of the nesting trees. But centuries of small changes born of the struggle over the resources necessary for human flourishing—the development of positive law, court systems, enforceable contracts, bureaucracies based on the written word, banking systems, trans-border trade—predated the thunderclap of mass uprising. Without those small developments over time, the big events of revolution would have been incomprehensible. What would people have been revolting against? What would their demands have been? Again, it was the push-and-pull between opposed forces—useless rural feudal lords trying to impose their will over increasingly productive urban capitalists and workers—that resulted in the collapse of the old system.

So how do we apply this dialectical and historical materialism to our day-to-day work? We look at the existing conditions in our society and look for the “contradictions.” Employers (capitalists) need employees (workers). You can’t have one without the other, but their relationship is contradictory. Employers, to flourish, need to make sure employees get as little as possible, and employees, to flourish, need to get as much as possible. This is the class struggle. The seed gets harder, and the finch’s beak gets thicker. On the local level, we have landlords and tenants, polluters and natural resources, militarized police and free communities. We can talk people’s ears off about the contradictions, but we know that it isn’t ideas that move people to action. It’s conflict.

It’s only when people directly experience the conflict in the system that they’ll take positive steps to resolve that conflict. When we talk about organizing, we don’t just mean talking; we mean moving people into “material” action—trying to take what they need and want, and facing the forces that want to keep it from them. This kind of organizing creates the small quantitative changes that over time results in a big qualitative change—systems and a world that, although it springs from what came before, is wholly new.

 

FURTHER READING:

Singer, Peter: Marx, A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press

Ollman, Bertell: Dance of the Dialectic: Steps in Marx’s Method, University of Illinois Press

D’Amato, Paul: The Meaning of Marxism, Haymarket Books

Slaughter, Cliff: Marxism & The Class Struggle, New Park

Marx, Karl & Friedrich Engels: Theses on Feuerbach, Progress Press

Mandel, Ernest: The Formation of the Economic Thought of Karl Marx, 1843 to Capital, Verso Books

A reading on Engels and the Dialectic of Nature. NOTE: Never confuse Engels’ interest in Darwinian evolution with the snake oil of “social Darwinism,” the late 19th Century philosophy that said that the rich were the “most fit.” Natural selection is a dialectical, material process, but it does not map onto how society works, as Marx and Engels well understood. Dialectical materialism is a system for understanding how things work; social Darwinism was a crackpot theory for retroactively justifying why things were the way they were.