Dialectical & Historical Materialism
As part of their socialization within class society, workers are encouraged to believe that individual self-interest is the foundation of human nature and survival. If this is true, all of human history has been a struggle driven by greed. Workers are told that society cannot be changed because of “natural” human greed. Workers are given the option of either giving in to that greed or using religion or mysticism to “rise above the material world.”
Neither of those options provides a realistic alternative or solution to the problems presented by class society. Marxists understand that society has not always been driven by individual self-interest and greed, that greed is not a part of human nature, and that society can be changed for the better. All of this can be demonstrated by using dialectical materialism, a scientific method of thinking to evaluate the world in which humans live.
Dialectical materialism can be broken down into its respective components for a better understanding. Dialectics describes the scientific method Marxists use to analyze the world around them. Materialism represents Marxists’ conception of the reality dialectics is intended to analyze.
Dialectics, as a method of analysis, takes into account the interconnectedness of nature, the contradictions and state of continuous change inherent in it, and the process by which natural quantitative change leads to qualitative change. Simply put, dialectics holds that all things are in a constant state of change, that this continual change is a result of interactions and conflicts, and that many small hidden changes add up until the thing in question has been qualitatively transformed into something different. The process by which water is transformed into steam, by heating it until it passes the boiling point, illustrates the concept of dialectics at work.
Materialism is the Marxist conception of nature as it exists without any supernatural or mystical dimension. Materialism holds that objective reality exists independent of human consciousness and that matter is primary.
Dialectical materialism shows that people’s thoughts, characters and actions are shaped by the conditions in the world around them, the material world. When people look at the world through the lens of dialectical materialism they can see the logical development of beliefs and thoughts, actions and events, and even human history as a whole.
Historical materialism extends the principles of dialectical materialism to the study of society and its history. Historical materialism recognizes that history and society develop based on material, economic conditions. Therefore all development, that of ideas and that of institutions, is based on conflicts and interactions in the material world.
This understanding of development and change refutes the argument that class society is based on natural human greed. The development of class society came from the material interactions and conflicts that humans have faced over history.
A belief in dialectical materialism does not validate the oppression and exploitation of the working masses within this development of class society. Marxists argue that this scientific view analyzes how humanity and society have developed so that it can be changed. Most importantly, it instills the knowledge of human agency in history — that people are in fact able to change the oppressive society that they live in, and that society cannot possibly stay the same as the material world changes. Dialectical materialism implies that capitalism, like everything else, has a birth, a development, and will have an end.
- Dialectics – by Frederick Engels, Part 2 of Socialism: Scientific or Utopian
- Historical Materialism – by Frederick Engels, Part 3 of Socialism: Scientific or Utopian
- Materialism – by Frederick Engels, Part of Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy
- Karl Marx – by V.I. Lenin, A Brief Biographical Sketch With an Exposition of Marxism, including Materialism and Dialectics
- On economic determinism – Some claim that Marxism says that only economic factors determine non-economic spheres of life such as politics, religion, and ideology. Engels responded: Anyone who accuses us of economic determinism doesn’t understand dialectics; all Marx and I ever said was that the mode of production determines social consciousness. For more, see Engels’ 1890 letter to J. Bloch.
- Engels’ 4 letters on Historical Materialism