An Abstract of Dialectical Materialism

‘Without revolutionary theory, there can be no revolutionary movement.’ — Vladimir Lenin.

Obviously, there are restrictions on what 1 can elaborate within an article. Dialectical materialism is the result of 1000s of years in human history – from Chinese dialectics in the Tao-Te Ching, through Indian materialism, Greek materialism, European rationalism, Hegel, Feuerbach, Marx, Lenin & up until the present. We can’t cover all of this. Instead, we are going to look at some of the fundamental developments in brief – Hegel’s critique of formal logic, Marx’s critique of Hegel – & provide a basic, hopefully practical, introduction to the theory itself. My comrade Duban has developed an introduction to the Marxist conception of history – the counter-part to this abstract – which can be found here.

The 1st question: what is formal logic? Let’s define some basic terms in order to understand – form & content are immediately necessary. To avoid unnecessary proofs, let’s defy bourgeois academia & keep this definition short, simple. For the present, let us take form to mean “abstraction” & content to mean “concrete”. Even simpler: for the present, let’s take form to mean “thought” & content to mean “physicality”. Formal logic is, therefore, a logic which obeys only form – that is, human thought in isolation: ‘Formal logic studies purely analytical transformations, inferences in which thought is concerned only with itself.’[i]

‘A is A. If A is B and B is C, then A is C.’[ii]

This quotation is taken from Hegel’s “History of Philosophy”. It describes the process taken by formal logic, the manner in which it reaches its conclusions. Let’s see how it pans out.

A tree is a tree. A tree is green.

What else is green? What other object shares that same property?

Grass is green. Grasss is a tree.

This is an exaggeration of formal logic, a reductio ad absurdum. However, it shows the obvious flaws in the logic. It demonstrates what we have already said: formal logic is concerned with thought; formal logic attempts to separate form from content. For the sake of argument, let’s allow our opponent logician their defence against such exaggerations, their negation.

‘A is not not-A.’ (Lefebvre)

In this rendition, we are provided with an equally perplexing analysis: that things are simply what they are. In other words, the identity of an object is internal, inherent. In attempting to separate form from content, the logician has attempted to create ‘[a] movement of thought [which] seems to be separate, which has nothing to do with the object being thought.’ (Hegel, Geschitchte der Philosophie) If this were achieved then form cannot be applied to any particular content – as it becomes impossible to say that a tree is green – or else, that it cannot be applied to any content, without reservation – as it becomes possible to say that grass is a tree. Hegel is very clear on this: a void entity, without content, cannot be created. There is not a logic separate from content; such a thing is fundamentally impossible.

Before we move on, to discuss the consequences of this for Hegel, let’s locate formal logic in a theory. To be clear, formal logic is a method underpinning many, but not all, idealist philosophies – it is not a philosophy in & of itself. Even philosophers are not quite stupid enough to attempt to aggrandise the method – they do not like to admit to it. In order demonstrate the multitude of ideas formal logic can underpin, we are going to locate it in a seemingly correct, although “of-its-time”, world-system: Greek materialism.

Aristotle offers the primary verbalisation of Greek materialism we retain today. He believed in a philosophy termed Eternalism – a primitive form of materialism. Under this theory, there was no such thing as a creator, gods or otherwise: the universe simply was & always had been. This is a marked improvement upon religious faith – an unrestrained idealism. However, it falls apart due to its technique: formal logic. The key to seeing how it underpins Aristotle’s theory lies in his conception of time. In Eternalist thought, time is static. As a consequence of this, all material objects are reduced to an “essence”: ‘isolated and immobile facts, […] substances or parts, which are external one to another.’ (Lefebvre) This carries with it the implication that Aristotle is positing an absolute. In other words, he applies form – i.e. his ideas – to concrete reality, without caring whether or not they are suitable.

1 can demonstrate Aristotle’s formal-logic-as-method by an examination of his studies in natural science. In Aristotle’s Historia Animālium, he records various categories of species, studying their organs etc in great detail through various methods – simple observation, vivisection, dissection etc. A lot of the work has certain inaccuracies, often owing the scientific equipment of the time. However, 1 observation is rather revealing of the philosopher’s formalism. In observing 2 similar types of animal, Aristotle noted that there was a slight difference between them. He therefore categorised them as completely different animals. What he had, in point of fact, observed, was not understood until Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Aristotle had witnessed evolution &, due to his conception of time – his use of formal logic, he misunderstood it. ‘Identity is therefore taken as both form and content: its own content.’ (Lefebvre)

We have therefore, a critique of formal logic. Let us underscore the principle points.

The separation of form & content; the attempt to remove content from an understanding of form; the reduction & isolation of content. The absolute – time.

This critique led Hegel to develop an understanding of dialectical logic. The process that this took is quite complex & involves quite a lengthy theoretical proof. Again, for the sake of brevity, I would direct the reader to read further material. For the purposes of explanation, we rejoin Hegel, at a later date, in order to understand contradiction.

Hegel understood contradiction as the result of 2 categories – form & content. As a basic expression, the term contradiction describes the difference between these categories, that is, between human ideas & material reality. This is quite simple to demonstrate; all of us have experienced a difference between what is thought – the ideal – & what is in front of us – the real.

This concept, contradiction, Hegel describes as being what drives forward history. He describes this in the term ‘transcending’. A contradiction is transcended only when form & content are brought into unity, when ‘it is a new concept, but higher and richer than the previous one, having been enriched by its negation or, in other words, its contrary; it contains the other but is also more than the other, it is their unity.’[iii] This understanding, that contradiction is resolved by the unity of its constituent parts, is what allowed Hegel to formulate dialectical logic. Hegel saw form & content – abstract & concrete – as intimately linked, held within a unity. The contradictions that this draws out – the difference between the ideal & the real – can only be resolved by a form of action. In other words, contradiction may only be resolved in motion.

So, how do we understand motion? This much, I think, does not require a lengthy explanation; motion should be a concept familiar to all of us. ‘Matter exists in motion. All matter, galaxies, plants, molecules and society is in a state of motion. Human beings are part of matter, as is consciousness’[iv]. Movement is a fundamental characteristic of dialectical logic – whether Hegelian or Marxist. It makes the existence of formal logic fundamentally impossible; when we consider motion, a world of ‘isolated and immobile facts, […] substances or parts, which are external one to another’ becomes transparently ludicrous. It allows for the resolution of contradiction, in unity. The acknowledgement of motion allows us to understand how human beings develop.

Let’s return to our tree – our isolated & immobile tree – in order to demonstrate this point. Previously, we have described this to be a tree through formal logic, which provides only a tautology: the tree is a tree because it is a tree: ‘A is A’; ‘A is not not-A.’

The tree has grown from a seed.

In other words, the tree exists in motion. It has not always existed; it exists as the result of motion.

The form “tree” finds itself in the content “tree”.

What do we understand by this? This is the unity of form & content, as it is understood by the

Hegelian dialectic. Hegel arrives at the following formulation from this process:

A is indeed A, but A is also not-A precisely in so far as the proposition ‘A is A’ is not a tautology but has a real content. A tree is a tree only by being such and such a tree, by bearing leaves, blossom and fruit, by passing through and pre­serving within itself those moments of its be­coming, which analysis can attain but must not isolate … The blossom, moreover, turns into fruit, and the fruit detach themselves and produce other trees; this expresses a profound relationship, a difference verging on contradiction … (Hegel, WL)

To reiterate to above point, without the esoteric Hegelian language, our tree is a tree as our form for a tree – our idea of a tree – finds its realisation within a specific content – that is, in material reality. This tree exists in time, in motion, & may only be understood in motion. A tree is a tree precisely because of its existence in motion, as something that begins as a seed, becomes a sapling, bearing leaves & passing through the various stages of natural development.

The Hegelian dialectic.

In order to progress beyond this point, that of the Hegelian dialectic, we must begin to critique Hegel. We must observe Marx’s critique of the Hegelian dialectic in order to proceed beyond it, transcending its own internal contradictions, & arrive at dialectical materialism. In order to do so, we must begin by defining 2 further terms.

Subject & object: what do we understand by these terms? They should be familiar to us; they appear frequently within philosophy, literature, even politics. What do they mean?

Although the definitions offered by various disciplines are, ostensibly, correct, for our analysis we require a more active definition. We need to consider the idea of motion in approaching these terms. For the present, then, let us again defy bourgeois academia & skip the proof. Let us consider subject to mean “the actor” – that is, that which acts – & the object to mean “the passive” or that which is acted upon. The fundamental question which arises from this concept is very simple: what is the motor of history? Or again, what is the object & what is the subject of history?

For Hegel, dialectical logic & contradiction – that which drives forward history – is resolved in ‘the Absolute Idea’ – i.e. God.

What this translates to, essentially, is that history is moved forward by form. In his critique of formal logic, Hegel has been able to understand that form cannot be applied without a consideration of content. He has transcended the fundamental contradiction offered by formal logic – that form & content are divorced – only to resolve this conflict into an idealist dialectical logic. History is driven forward by the Absolute Idea – that is, the abstract self-identity of form – & content is merely the self-realisation of this form.

In other words, Hegel understood that philosophical thought is the motor of history. In this understanding, Hegel further posits that material reality is the realisation of thought; according to Hegel, thought alone is responsible for the creation of material reality. Thought, in Hegel’s understanding, is the acting agent of history; material reality is being acted upon – it is passive.

Shall we explain this circle? In Hegel’s dialectic, thought ultimately becomes concerned only with itself. In his asserting that thought is the active agent of history, Hegel involuntarily forms an isolated understanding of the world, 1 which resolves itself into finite limits. History evolves as a result of the Absolute Idea, something which has already developed, which is now static. Hegel therefore posits the same reality as that of formal logic, with a new method. It is this method – the dialectic – that is worth retaining & not Hegel’s system.

These observations of the Hegelian dialectic are those which were made by Marx. In the afterword to the 2nd Edition of Das Kapital in 1873, Marx writes about his relationship to Hegel:

My dialectical method is, in its foundations, not only different from the Hegelian, but exactly opposite to it. For Hegel, the process of thinking, which he even transforms into an independent subject, under the name of ‘the idea’, is the creator of the real world, and the real world is only the external appearance of the idea. With me the reverse is true: the ideal is nothing but the material world reflected in the mind of man, and translated into forms of thought – With him it (the dialectic) is standing on its head. It must be inverted, in order to discover the rational kernel within the mystical shell.

I reiterate: with Hegel, ‘[the dialectic] is standing on its head. It must be inverted’. As we are already aware, Hegel places the Absolute Idea – the form – before material reality – the content. Marx advocates the direct opposite: material reality comes before ideas; concrete comes before abstract. This is means that Marx’s method is a materialist method, operating dialectically. 1st, then, what do we understand by materialism?

Materialism, above all else, ‘recognises the independent existence of matter as detached from spirit and considers spirit as secondary and subordinate’[v]. Fundamentally, this means that matter exists independently of human thought, of Mind. To phrase this as a simple expression, 1 which can be found in James Joyce’s Ulysses or in Aristotle, if we close our eyes the universe continues to exist. This is a commonality of Marx’s theory with crude materialism.

However, as should be transparent to us, ideas do exist. The idea as posited by idealism – the Hegelian dialectic & its predecessors in formal logic – puts itself ahead of matter; ostensibly, idealism posits that, if human thought did not exist, the universe would not exist. Herein arises the contradiction that dialectical materialism is born of: the contradiction between idealism & crude materialism. Marx’s critique of the Hegelian dialectic – that in placing the Absolute Idea ahead of matter, Hegel has produced an absolute, a finite limit upon human development of which he is the end result – allows to resolve this contradiction, to transcend it.

It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.[vi]

We have, therefore, an understanding of the world which posits that ideas come from our material circumstance: ideas are generated as a result of material reality. What is important to note is that Marx is not positing an absolute, he is not positing a determinism.

[What] we call consciousness is nothing else but a form of the movement of matter, a particular characteristic of the material brain of humanity; it is that particular characteristic of the material brain which causes the material processes outside consciousness to be reflected in consciousness […] (Mao)

From this quotation we may recognise 2 fundamental points. 1stly, the point that Mao makes explicitly: the human mind is made of matter &, therefore, ideas are the reflection of matter within matter. Abstract & concrete – form & content – are held in unity: they are seemingly contradictory parts to a dialectical whole. This underscores a fundamental point of Marxist thought – the relationship between the part & the whole – a point which Hegel began to grasp in his understanding of unity & contradiction. The whole is made of constituent parts. The whole is greater than its parts; to use the Hegelian term, the whole transcends its parts.

That which is implicit within Mao’s point is that human beings, as matter, may impact upon & change their material circumstances: ‘Theory becomes a material force as soon as it has gripped the masses.’ (Marx) Once we have grasped this concept – that humanity may change its material circumstance, as a result of its material circumstance – we begin to see the revolutionary meaning of Marx’s dialectic: history is driven forward by human labour.

The Marxist dialectic.

Why is human history driven by human labour? Humanity’s ability to change its circumstances create, within the productive forces – tools etc – the possibility of new ideas, of new forms of social organisation. Let’s examine this further.

Humanity itself, as a physical form, was not initially possessed of conscious. Humanity’s ability to understand itself & to understand its relation to the physical world comes from its relation to tools. Nature, as it initially presents itself, is ostensibly formless: it produces itself. Humanity becomes to distinct when it begins to produce itself. In other words, when human beings 1st created tools, contained within those tools was the possibility of an idea – the concept of the tool & its ability to impact upon humanity’s material circumstances. At the same time as those ideas are created, as humanity is able to produce for itself, it becomes alienated from Nature.

Alienation is a further concept in & of itself. It describes the relation between human beings & their material products – the existence of ideas estranges human beings from these objects. Humanity has become the subject of history, Nature, labour etc the object.

Marx locates human labour as the motor of history in his understanding of the material productive forces of society. To explain this simply, we must merely quote him:

In studying such transformations it is always necessary to distinguish between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, artistic or philosophic – in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out. Just as one does not judge an individual by what he thinks about himself, so one cannot judge such a period of transformation by its consciousness, but, on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained from the contradictions of material life, from the conflict existing between the social forces of production and the relations of production. No social order is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed, and new superior relations of production never replace older ones before the material conditions for their existence have matured within the framework of the old society.

In other words: human labour drives forward history.

In closing, let us describe the above image of a spiral. This image is used by Lenin to characterise the Marxist dialectic in his essay On the Question of Dialectics. He describes it thus: ‘Human knowledge is not (or does not follow) a straight line, but a curve, which endlessly approximates a series of circles, a spiral.’ He describes it this way to underscore a fundamental point: dialectical materialism, Marxism, could not exist before the development of Capitalism: it could not exist until idealism, materialism & dialectics had advanced to a sufficient degree to allow contradiction to come into being.

We have now outlined the fundamental concepts of dialectical materialism: abstract-concrete, part-whole, contradiction, subject-object, alienation & motion. These concepts must be considered through the study of history – through historical proof & the study of the material development of history. Rather obviously, the study of dialectical materialism is a dialectical process that must be realised in practice.

[i] Henri Lefebvre, Dialectical Materialism.

[ii] Hegel, Geschitchte der Philosophie.

[iii] Hegel, Wissenschaft der Logik.

[iv] Trevor Rayne, ‘Dialectical Materialism’ (Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism!, issue87).

[v] Mao, Dialectical Materialism.

[vi] Karl Marx, Preface to a Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy.


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