22 January 2008

Dialectical materialism: its meaning and scope

Dialectical materialism as a philosophical term is often abbreviated for convenience to diamat. In the history of Marxism from Engels onwards – particularly in the official communist movement – a great deal of mystical mumbo-jumbo has been written about this subject. I will argue here, however, that the key tenets of diamat are easy to elucidate, and - as far as they go - they are probably correct. While they are arguably true, I will argue that they provide a world conception of material existence, and not a magic wand for understanding all and sundry.

Introductory Points

Prior to the exposition, three things need to be clarified. The first is the distinction in metaphysics between ontology and epistemology. Ontology investigates existence; i.e. what exists in the universe and what are the conditions of and for existence. Epistemology, in contrast, examines the question of how we can know something to be true. This simple distinction, however, gives rise to a problem. While we can assume that there is material world external to our senses and to ourselves, what we know about it is dependent on our methodology of investigation. In other words, ontological questions can be seen as subordinate to epistemological ones. Diamat, though, is in the first instance an ontological theory (it says things about existence) and only secondarily addresses issues of ‘how we know things.’ For that reason diamat is based entirely on chains of reasoning (as is logic and mathematics) and can only provide at best the ontological preconditions for knowledge of the external world, not knowledge itself.

Second, having stressed the predominance of reason in diamat, it is helpful to throw light on the mode of back-chaining reasoning through which much of the analysis develops. The logic is often of this kind:

If P is the case, then Q must be the case, (i.e. P cannot exist without Q)
Therefore, if we assume the existence or truth of P, then we assume the same of Q.

Third, diamat claims to be a universal philosophy. Roughly speaking, we can divide philosophy into three levels: (i) questions concerning the cosmos and the existence of things, (ii) the social world, and (iii) the individual. Diamat operates at a cosmic level with the other levels as instances of its general operation. In Marxism it is traditionally said that dialectical materialism is the philosophy standing behind historical materialism, with historical materialism being understood as the philosophy and sociology of human society and social existence. Nonetheless, readers will be able to see that diamat, given its abstract quality, has to be compatible with just about any kind of sociology or political theory, and conversely that historical materialism has to be justified by arguments over and above those provided by diamat.

An Exposition of Dialectical Materialism

Let us start by assuming a single object in the universe, e.g. a stone. The existence of the object pre-supposes the existence of space and time. In other words, if an object, (or objects) exists, then so does space and time. Why? An object cannot exist unless it has three dimensions; if that is so, a three-dimensional space must also exist. For analogous reasoning, time must also exist. Unless an object exists in time, it cannot exist at all.

With space, however, we can deduce not only the existence of space, but also its gradation or measurement by degree. The dimensions of the object (e.g. a stone) must be limited. If any of its three dimensions were unlimited then the stone would be coterminous with the universe itself because there would be no part of the universe outside the stone.

The measurement or gradation of time can only be proved through introducing the notion of movement. For movement to exist, we need at least a second object. The movement of object A has to be understood relative to the movement of object B. If the distance between the two objects changes that change has to be within a specific time period.

So far we have seen from some very simple common sense observations of the cosmic material world the connection between objects, space, time, and movement/change. Of all these concepts only one (i.e. the object) refers to something that has material existence.

We know (or at least can pre-suppose) that the universe consists of two or more objects. In fact we can suppose it consists of many billions of interconnected things. The ‘di’ in dialectical materialism, however, refers to the notion of two things. This needs to be explained. Let us take any one thing ‘X’ then everything else can be referred to as ‘not-X’ By this means we can divide the totality of the universe (which we will call ‘T’) into two parts X and not-X. X can be anything we want it to be. We can represent this idea in the following formula:

X + not-X = T

Let us now return to the idea of movement or change. Assuming for this purpose X to be an undifferentiated thing merely existing in time it is incapable of changing itself. Therefore, its partner in change has to be not-X and cannot be anything else because X and not-X together is all that exists. In the process of change, not only will X be changed, but X will inevitably cause a change to not-X. X may change so radically that it ceases to be the original X. An example will help clarify this argument. Imagine that all that exists in the universe are a green and a blue bottle. The only thing that can change the green bottle is the blue bottle, but the latter cannot change the former without being changed itself. After the change one or both of the bottles may become something else entirely; e.g. broken pieces of glass.

Implications of diamat

Diamat allows us to conceptualise a system in the universe in the following terms.
• All change comes from inside the system.
• The system consists of two parts X and not-X
• X could not exist without not-X and vice versa.
• Change is the result of the interaction between X and not-X.
• Change can transform and even destroy the original X and not-X

When applied to the whole universe, diamat gives a non-theistic world view. God and purpose-in-existence are abandoned and instead we have a picture of interacting things moving through time, some of which we know about already and some we do not. The division of the universe (or a self contained sub-system of activity within it) into Xs and non-Xs is of course not arbitrary, but rather the division is chosen on the basis of our reasoning and existing knowledge. Thus in historical materialism, for example, the division is: X = human beings and not-X = the rest of the material universe. Over history, historical materialism maintains, humans by means of their labour and by using their technology change their material surrounding while their material surrounding change them.

Though diamat is an ontological theory, it nonetheless has epistemological implications. X can be seen as our mind (either one particular mind or the mind of humans in general; the important thing is that it is ‘the knower’) and not-X is the external material universe which is to be known. To know something we must bring our brain and its reasoning power through the senses and apply it to what we sense; i.e. the external material world. As a result we have knowledge, which changes both our sense of our material world (e.g. it’s round not flat) and also the ideas we have in our heads.


The great fault in the history of Marxism (and Marxism-Leninism in particular) has been the reduction of these observations to dogma and the insistence that the adoption of a particular politics flows as the result of a logical chain from dialectical materialism to a particular policy. This is hardly sensible. The real power of dialectical materialism is twofold (i) it gives us a world view of things, if we need one, and (ii) it gives us the word dialectical which, if not thrown around like confetti and is deployed correctly, can assist in our understanding of things.

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