Dialectical materialism is the philosophy of Marxism, underpinning the way we analyse all social and natural phenomena. Its power lies in the fact that it is both a method for understanding the dynamics of the world, and a guide to action for changing it.
The following is adapted from an explanation of dialectical materialism written for a friend.
Philosophical idealism is essentially putting consciousness above everything else in nature, whilst materialism is the view that everything is explained by natural/material processes (including consciousness). For example, an idealistic view of history would be that it was largely determined by the great leaders and ideas of each age, whilst a materialistic view of history would place more priority on the material forces at play. That’s because ideas don’t just come out of a vacuum; they are shaped by the nature and development of the economy (hunter gatherer, slave, feudal, capitalistic, etc.), the relations of production (which are formalised by property laws) and the balance of class forces (where class is defined in terms of relations to property, e.g. owning a feudal manor, land, a corporation, etc.), amongst other things. Marx summarised it nicely with his famous quote:
It is not the consciousness of man that determines his social being, but, rather, his social being that determines his consciousness.
So that’s the materialism part, now what’s the dialectical part? That’s the part that is least understood about Marxism, as textbooks usually only talk about the materialist aspect of Marxism, depicting a crude caricature of it as a philosophy of economic reductionism. The dialectical part is equally as important however, but a bit harder to explain.
Basically, if you examine something dialectically, you examine it in its motion and not in its rest; in its context and not in isolation. It’s sort of the opposite of formal logic, where everything is static and put into fixed categories. A dialectical analysis of current events means always thinking about things in their context, and never viewing things as eternal and unchanging.
For example, take the famous Marxist analogy of the base and superstructure, which I just briefly explained – the material base of society (economy, mode of production, relations of production) determines the superstructure (culture, religion, government, etc.). However, if we just stopped there (which is what most mainstream representations of Marxism do, so that they can attack a strawman), it would be a pretty reductionist view of the world. That’s where dialectics comes in – it says that the base forms the basis of the superstructure, but the superstructure can, in turn affect the base – they are in a dialectical relationship. One changes the other, and the other in turn changes the original. You examine things in their interrelationships, and not in isolation.
“Human nature” is another good example. People often say socialism is impossible because humans are inherently selfish. That is an undialectical, and idealist view, because it ignores the fact that “human nature” is determined by the environment that the person finds themselves in – the superstructure of society (culture, mainstream views, etc.), and, in turn, the material base.
For example, imagine if you lived with others on a desert island with a limited supply of food; a “Lord of the Flies” situation. Everyone would start fighting for resources eventually right? And probably resort to cannibalism after a few weeks. Is that because humans are inherently selfish and animalistic? Or is it because their environment forced them to act that way, and there is no such thing as the “inherent” nature of man that is pre-existing? It’s the same with selfishness under capitalism – we have to compete with each other for jobs in order to earn a living; we are constantly told that great individuals built society; our society worships at the altar of profit… It is our environment that encourages selfishness, not some inherent property of human beings.
Another key component in dialectics is the acceptance of so-called “contradictions”; how a supposedly coherent entity can contain opposing (or “contradictory”) forces. The main “contradiction” in capitalist society is the social production of commodities, but the private appropriation of profits. This is a bit harder to explain, so I’d refer you to this article here.
Obviously there’s a lot more to it, but it’s quite hard to explain succinctly!
Here’s a recap:
Materialism – everything can be explained by material forces
Dialectics – nothing is eternal and unchanging; no properties are inherent; everything is interconnected; coherent entities can contain contradictory forces