15 March 2016
Dialectics Explained Simply
In Marxism the concept of dialectics is often complicated and mystified. It needs stating simply.
Dialectical theory describes and explains the development of systems which exist in the world. Here I will try to explain dialectics as a conceptual tool for understanding society.
What society is: a sketch map
To start, we have to answer another question: what is society? For Marxists – and indeed most other sociologists – society is conceived as a system made up of a complex network of interactive causes and effects. A change in any one element in the social system affects the others. For instance, a rise in unemployment causes an increase crime, which in turn changes the role of police, which has further effects, and so on.
If society is thought of as containing all the causes of change in society, then it follows that change originates from within the social system itself. In other words, at any given point, society contains within itself tensions and pressures (often called contradictions) which are the cause of social change. And when a new situation has established itself, there are yet again new tensions and pressures which lead to further social change, and so on.
A metaphor for understanding all of this is to see society as a huge piece of fungus, constantly changing over time because of developments from within.
The traditional explanation of dialectical change (thesis, antithesis, synthesis) is only a linguistic re-organisation of the points above. The argument is like this. Everything in a social system at any point in time is either a something (i.e. a thesis) or not that thing (i.e. its antitheses). As a result of the interaction of thesis and antithesis a new situation in society (i.e. synthesis) emerges for which the original thesis and antithesis have interacted and merged.
I think, however, that the theory of dialectics is better thought of as a summary or abstraction of the rules for understanding change in a social system. Dialectical analysis identifies pairs of social elements which co-exist, are dependent on one another and which interact with each other. Let us take an example.
Human beings and nature. We can clearly conceptualise everything that exists as either human beings or as nature minus human beings. We cannot imagine society without people, nor could we have a society without things (food, cupboards, water, etc). Nature affects us and we affect nature through building dams, houses, etc. Thus, it is said that the relationship between human beings and nature is dialectical.
Marxists in their analysis do not identify dialectical pairs (i.e. theses and antitheses) on an arbitrary basis, nor do they see the direction of historical change as entirely arbitrary or accidental, but what drives history forward is beyond the scope of this discussion.
To sum up, a dialectical analysis of society recognises that social change comes from tensions or pressures within the existing state of things. And when a new state of affairs has been created, then that too is subject to change for the same reason. When explained like this, dialectical theory can be seen as something which is almost certainly correct, but if not linked to other theories and observations, it is not very revealing.
Why dialectics is a dirty word
The theory of dialectics provides a number of valuable observations about the functioning of a any living system - be it the social system, or of the cosmos itself. But during the years of historical communism 1917-89, and particularly during the years of Joseph Stalin’s rule from the end of the 1920s till his death in 1953, dialectics was misused to explain and justify the decisions and dogmas of the Communist Parties in the World. After that the dialectical baby was thrown out with the Stalinist bathwater and people were reluctant to use the term.
In many instances, to avoid summoning up prejudice unnecessarily, the use of the term interaction will effectively substitute for dialectical; and, in addition, it is more easily understood. Of course they are not quite the same: dialectics implies a whole theory, whereas interaction merely means that X affects Y and vice versa.