Dialectical materialism is the philosophical basis of Marxism as defined by later Communists and their Parties (sometimes called "orthodox" Marxism). As the name signals, it is an outgrowth of both Hegel's dialectics and Ludwig Feuerbach's and Karl Marx's philosophical materialism, and is most directly traced to Marx's fellow thinker, Friedrich Engels. It uses the concepts of thesis, antithesis and synthesis to explain the growth and development of human history. Although Hegel and Marx themselves never used the "thesis, antithesis, synthesis" model to summarize dialectics or dialectical materialism, it is now commonly used to illustrate the essence of the method.
Some Marxist theorists, critical of dialectical materialism, have called for a reassessment of the place of Engels' work Dialectics of Nature in the Marxist canon. They note that Marx preferred the term "the materialist conception of history," which was later shortened to "historical materialism." This, they argue, limits his method within a specifically human, sociological context, distinguishing it from a universalizing theory. And apart from the historical materialists, other thinkers in Marxist philosophy have had recourse to the original texts of Marx and Engels and have created other Marxist philosophical projects and concepts which are alternatives, and sometimes rivals, to the often-Party-sponsored ideas of "diamat" (an abbreviation for "dialectical materialism").
While dialectical materialism has been traditionally associated almost exclusively with Marxism, some claim that the philosophy is applicable to a non-Marxist worldview as well. There is nothing in either the concept of dialectic as elaborated by Hegel or in materialism itself which requires Marxism. However, because Marxism is essentially free of traditional theological influences, it is particularly well-suited to dialectical materialism, and a comparable political system based on the philosophy has not yet emerged.
Dialectical materialism was foreshadowed in Taoism, an ostensibly materialistic philosophical system which, being free of supernatural elements, posits a naturalistic unity of complementary polarities known as Yin and Yang. This co-substantial union of opposites, known as the Taiji or 'Supreme Ultimate,' is a forerunner of modern dialectical thinking.
In essence, materialism answers the fundamental question of philosophy by asserting the primacy of the material world: in short, matter precedes thought.
Materialism holds that the world is material, that all phenomena in the universe consist of matter in motion, wherein all things are interdependent and interconnected and develop in accordance with natural law, that the world exists outside us and independently of our perception of it, that thought is a reflection of the material world in the brain, and that the world is in principle knowable.
- The ideal is nothing else than the material world reflected by the human mind, and translated into forms of thought. --Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. 1.
Dialectics is the science of the most general laws of development of nature, society, and thought. Its principal features are as follows:
1) The universe is not an accidental mix of things isolated from each other, but an integral whole, wherein things are mutually interdependent.
2) Nature is in a state of constant motion:
- All nature, from the smallest thing to the biggest, from a grain of sand to the sun, from the protista to man, is in a constant state of coming into being and going out of being, in a constant flux, in a ceaseless state of movement and change. --Friedrich Engels, Dialectics of Nature.
3) Development is a process whereby insignificant and imperceptible quantitative changes lead to fundamental, qualitative changes. The latter occur not gradually, but rapidly and abruptly, in the form of a leap from one state to another.
- Merely quantitative differences beyond a certain point pass into qualitative changes. --Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. 1.
4) All things contain within themselves internal contradictions, which are the primary cause of motion, change, development in the world.
Laws of dialectics
The three laws of dialectics are:
- The law of the unity and conflict of opposites;
- The law of the passage of quantitative changes into qualitative changes;
- The law of the negation of the negation.
- The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question. Man must prove the truth, i.e., the reality and power, the this-worldliness of his thinking in practice. --Karl Marx, Theses on Feuerbach.
Selected readings on dialectical materialism
See also: Marx, Engels, Marxism, historical materialism, dialectical monism