Marxists are divided on the issue of dialectics and the question of the extent to which Karl Marx embraced the theory of dialectics. Dialectics (or the dialectic, or dialectical philosophy) is a philosophical approach the roots of which can be traced back to the ancient Greeks—Socrates, Plato, Aristotle. Of more direct influence on Marx, though, was the philosophy of Georgii Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, which had dialectics at its heart. According to the dialectical approach, reality is characterized by three key features: change, contradiction and connection. All reality is in a state of flux, nothing is static; all reality contains and is driven forward by internal contradictions; and all reality is interconnected, nothing exists in isolation. Hegel based his philosophical method on dialectics, his philosophy of history and his political philosophy, for example, being clearly structured to incorporate the notions of change, contradiction and connection.
   Marx was initially a disciple of Hegel and a member of the group of Left Hegelians that sought to interpret Hegel’s writings in a radical way. However, he broke with the Hegelians and wrote a critique of Hegel’s political philosophy (Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, 1843), but Marxists have disputed to what extent this represented a complete break with dialectics. Eduard Bernstein, Louis Althusser and the analytical Marxists for example reject the notion of a place for dialectics in Marx’s thought, but Vladimir Ilich Lenin, Mao Zedong, Georg Lukács and Herbert Marcuse are notable for the prominence they give to dialectics in Marxism. The weight of evidence in Marx’s later writings, particularly in the Grundrisse (1857/58), would seem to support the argument for Marx continuing to incorporate dialectical themes into his theories throughout his life. It is fair to say that Marx accepts the validity and importance of dialectics, but rejects Hegel’s treatment of it. Marx talks about Hegel having turned dialectics on its head, and he writes, “It must be inverted, in order to discover the rational kernel within the mystical shell.” From this it may be inferred that Marx rejects Hegel’s metaphysics, in particular his philosophical idealism and notion of Geist as the driving force in the universe.
   Instead, Marx adopts a materialist approach, seeing dialectics as a true description of the nature and structure of material reality. He retains the notion of contradictions, often identifying opposites that are in one sense united, but in another in conflict with one another. For example, Marx identifies the forces and relations of production as opposites constituting a contradiction. Forces of production are not static and in the course of developing come into conflict with the relations of production leading to crisis and change. Marx’s method of investigation of social reality is dialectical in that he seeks to identify and analyze different forms of development, the inner connections of different phenomena, and the latent contradictions within things. This gives Marx’s method a sense of history and context, so that, for example, he sees capitalism, its economic and political structures and institutions, its value and concepts as transient (change), as containing hidden connections between such aspects as production and politics (connections), and as conflict-ridden rather than a harmonious system (contradictions).
   Friedrich Engels described dialectics as “the science of the general laws of motion and development of nature, human society and thought,” and formulated three main laws of dialectics: (i) the transformation of quantity into quality, by which is meant gradual quantities changes at a certain point cause sudden and revolutionary qualitative change; (ii) the unity of opposites, by which is meant that all reality contains opposites or contradictions bound together as unities; and (iii) the negation of the negation, by which is meant that when opposites clash one negates the other and is then itself negated and superceded by another opposite, but with previous negations all in some sense preserved. Engels’ emphasis on dialectics as universal scientific laws led to a rigid, dogmatic interpretation of it that became known as dialectical materialism and dominated Marxist dialectical theory in the Second International and the Soviet Union. Josef Stalin dropped the law of the negation of the negation with its potential revolutionary implications a threat to his regime, and Mao Zedong made the transformation of quantity into quality a form of the law of the unity of opposites, and he made contradictions the central focus. Western Marxists have been bolder in their interpretations of dialectics and willingness to depart from Engels’ laws and Soviet/Second International orthodoxy.

Historical dictionary of Marxism. . 2014.


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