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What is Dialectical Materialism?

A straightforward explanation of one of the more important Marxist analytical tools.

Stalin’s On Dialectical and Historical Materialism offers perhaps the most accessible explanation of dialectical materialism, which is one of the principal analytical tools of Marxist thought. Stalin explained the four main features of the concept as follows:

  • Everything is connected;
  • Everything changes continually;
  • Small quantitative changes lead to big quantitative changes and then rapid qualitative changes in states;
  • The dynamic forces driving these changes are the contradictions inherent within all natural things and phenomena

Consequently, according to this way of thinking, it would be wrong to say that things happen at random and cannot be predicted – this is the opposite of Henry T Ford’s claim that history is just one damn thing after another. It also challenges religious thinking when it claims that a supernatural agency is responsible for any change in the universe.

Secondly, the concept is consistent with modern discoveries of quantum physics and the actions and nature of atoms and sub-atomic particles. In that science, it is clear that the particles are constantly in motion and in flux and, while it may not be possible to predict accurately exactly what will happen in the case of an individual particle, deep-lying structures exist and set the rules of progression by which the particles as a whole must behave.

Concepts such as the “tipping point” and “catastrophe theory,” which posit sudden, dramatic change from one state to another, are consistent with dialectical materialism. In the same way that Thomas Kuhn wrote about paradigm change, so too does dialectical materialism represent a reason for understanding why such dramatic change may occur. In the political world, the change is most commonly witnessed in the form of revolutions, although the exact moment and cause of change may not be immediately apparent.

Contradictions are the driving force in nature and are, therefore, to be nurtured rather than eliminated. The desire to eliminate contradictions is, therefore, the desire to eliminate nature and this would be both an impossible and a dangerous thing to attempt. In capitalism, the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter observed that its nature was one of “creative destruction,” which clearly shows the contradiction within the system. While creation is constant, so is destruction and, according to Marxists, this is what will lead to its inevitable destruction when there will be a rapid, qualitative change to another form of political-economic organisation. However, to date, capitalism has proven to be very durable in one way or another.

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