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Dialectical Materialism and Historical Materialism- Karl Marx

Updated on November 2, 2016

Dialectics and Social Change

Hegel’s Idea of dialectics Hegel used the idea of dialectic as reason and process. In broad sense the notion of dialectics as a logical process and more narrowly as a generator or motor of logical process.

Hegel maintains that God or the Absolute comes to self knowledge through human world. In a narrow sense Hegel conceived dialectics as grasping of opposites in their unity. A process which brings out implicit from the explicit i.e. each development is a product of previous less developed phase. Thus for Hegel history as progress in the consciousness of freedom.

Marx criticized Hegel for deducing laws of dialectics from consciousness instead of material existence, and propounded ‘dialectical materialism’, were in contradiction to Hegel. He said it the ‘matter’ which is supreme and not the consciousness and idea.

Laws of Dialectics In dialectical materialism, Karl Marx provide abstract laws for natural and social change. Contrary to Metaphysics, it behaves in nature; thing that are interconnected, interrelated and determined by each other.

This law of change is law of reality. There is constant transformation in inorganic nature and human world. There is nothing eternally static. These transformations are not gradual, but there is evident, revolutionary shift.

Three major laws of dialectical materialism by Engels. 1. The law of Unity and Conflict of Opposites. 2. The law of negation of the negation 3. The law of transition of Quantity into Quality.

[Extra: Thus Dialectical materialism, which forms philosophical base of Marxian, is a fusion of Hegel’s ‘dialectics’ and Feuerbach’s ‘materialism’.

Materialism claims that matter precedes thought, and establishes the primary of material.It holds that world is material, that all phenomenon in universe consist of matter in motion, wherein, that all things are interdependent and interconnected and develop in accordance with natural law, that the world exist outside us, and independently of our perception of it, and that thought is a reflection of the material world in our brain, and the world is in principle, knowable.

Karl Marx says, ‘The ideal is nothing but the material world reflected by human mind, and translated into forms of thought. (Capital, Vol I)

Dialectics: It is the science of most general laws of development of nature, society and thought. Its principle features are:

1. The universe is an integral whole, wherein ‘things are mutually dependent.

2. Nature is in state of motion.

3. Development is a process by which insignificant and imperceptible (impossible or difficult to perceive by the mind or senses) quantitative changes lead to fundamental, qualitative changes. The latter occur not gradually, but rapidly and abruptly, in the form of one state to another.

4. All things contain within themselves contradictions, which are the primary causes of motion, change and development in the world.]

The Law of Unity and Conflict of Opposites The world in which we live is a unity of contradictions – light–darkness, heat–cold, birth–death, capital–labour, electron–proton, etc. “everything contains two mutually incompatible, and exclusive, but nevertheless equally essential and indispensable parts or aspects”.

This inseparable interconnections of these opposing tendencies are the cause of unity of opposites. Such contradictions are universal in nature, they co-exist and constitute the object.

But this co-existence is not a co-operative one, rather a conflicting one. The mutually exclusive character necessarily causes struggle between them. Thus there is conflict of the opposites; - new versus old, emergent vs absolute etc. The unity of opposites is thus a pre-condition for their conflict.

This contradiction, conflict of opposites is the cause of development of matter and consciousness. More often one opposite tries to maintain the status-quo, while the other tries for radical change.

Thus there is continuous conflict, causing minor gradual change and when conditions are mature, a qualitative leap happens with emergence of a new phenomena, matter and thought. This new phenomena is thus the negation of old, and in turn possesses the seeds of conflict with internal contradiction. Thus further negation happens, i.e. negation of negation. Thus conflict is eternal, and development is essentially a negation of previous order.

The law of “Negation of Negation” Karl Marx criticized Hegel’s notion of negation in its idealistic sense, and gave materialistic interpretation of negation. Marx work, ‘In no sphere can one undergo a development without negating ones previous mode of existence.

Thus everything is a negation of something previously existed. Raymond Aron puts it, Capitalism is negation of feudalism, Socialism is negation of Capitalism, and thus a negation of negation.

Negation is not something brought out from outside. It is due to the objects internal development, the conflict of the opposites. Thus negation is a process of self-evolution. This negation is a continuity, Thesis – Antithesis, - Synthesis — Antithesis. But the new never completely overtakes old rather it becomes a synthesis of old and new.

Thus succession of developmental stages is progressive. Although no stage completely re-occur, some attributes of previous stages becomes a part of the new stages. Thus communism of privative-communism could form a part of negation of capitalism.

Thus for Marx and Engels, developments is nothing but a countless number of successive negations, and an endless replacement or overcoming of old by the new.

The law of “Transformation of Quantity into Quality” In nature everything is in continuous motion and change. Certain thing are born, certain are growing, certain are decaying while certain other are dying. All these are change. But there is difference between quantitative and qualitative changes. Qualitative changes are when something that existed is no more, or something which exist today was not there yesterday. Thus birth and death are qualitative changes while others are quantitative. Marx argued quantitative changes keep on happening due to conflict of opposites, these changes which are gradual, will lead to a qualitative leap, which would be abrupt, revolutionary to a new phenomenon, which further undergoes gradual quantitative changes.

Application of Dialectic Materialism and Historical Materialism.

When the laws of dialectical materialism is applied to history of society, it takes the shape of historic materialism. Thus Marx has traced the evolution of societies in terms of material bases. Historical materialism, though based on the philosophical strand of dialectic materialism, can be independently interpreted as a sociological theory of human history. It contains both a scientific explanation and an instigation of revolution within it.

Marx view on Human society

i) Society as an interrelated whole: i.e. social groups, institutions, beliefs and doctrines are integrally related. Thus he studies society as a whole in integration, rather than, history, polity, religion, law, education etc separately.

ii) Changeable nature of society: Internal contradictions and conflict, constantly bring about changes in society. These changes can be studied in general and postulated. Societies are inherently mutable.

iii) Human nature and social relationship: According to Marx, there is no permanent persistence of human nature. Neither is it evil or permanently good. Human nature is potentially revolutionary. Human will is not a passive reflection of events, but contain the power to rebel against circumstances in the prevailing limitations of ‘human nature.”

Historical Materialism (Economic interpretation of European/human history)

The phrase ‘historical materialism’ was never used by Marx. This phrase was used by PLEKHANOV who was Lenin’s mentor. He coined this term referring to what Marx did say, that was ‘materialistic interpretation of history’. But what Marx actually refereed to material interpretation of history was the changes due to economic forces. After his death Engels and Plekhanov popularized this term.

Materialistic interpretation of history: History is change that takes over time. This change is what he wanted to study. He tried to understand these change w.r.t.(with respect to) economic forces of society. This signifies a different methods a different way of looking at things. Historical materialism is simultaneously an embodiment of Marx perspective and methodology. Historical materialism had two elements. (a) Basic assumptions that Marx had about human societies. (b) Based on assumption attempt to explain change in society in terms of economic forces.

Marx in his book “A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy” (published in 1859), writes, “ It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but on the contrary, their social existence that determines their consciousness.

According to Marx, labour distinguishes mankind from the rest of the animals. Thus human being must eat, drink, sleep, have shelter and cloth, and hence must work, before they can think politics, religion or law.

Thus economic structure is the base of society and all other aspects, legal, political, religious, family, are all super structures built on this economic base. Thus the process of socio-political–intellectual life is conditioned by the mode of production of material life. New developments in forces of production bring about conflict with relations of production. When people become conscious of state of conflict, they wish to bring an end to it. This period is period of social revolution. Revolution brings about temporary resolution to conflict, new forces of production arise and give risk to new relations of production. Thus the growth of forces of production outlines human history. Hence his theory is historical materialism.

Karl Marx’ historical materialism can be outlined as:

1) Social development is based on the development of forces of production, which is material.

2) Man is inevitably involved in production relations as his most basic social relationship.

3) The relations of production follows the progress in forces of production.

4) The Production forces and relations progress independently of mans will.

5) When production relations become a fetter to the progress of production forces, revolution occurs.

6) Economy forms the infrastructure, and the superstructures, ideological forms is the product of production relations.

7) Every type of a state is a power organization of ruling class; the state is the institution of oppression which one class uses to oppress other classes. Therefore shifting of power from one class to another has to follow a change in the relations to production and can be achieved only through revolution.

Marx applies historic materialism, and traces the evolution of human history. He identified following stages of development: (i) Primitive Communism (ii) Ancient Society (iii) Feudal Society (iv) Capitalist Society (v) Communism

(i) Primitive Communism (Primitive Communal form of Society). This term refers to primitive i.e. food gatherers and hunters and communism i.e. a system of equality (or community owned system). This is the first stage of human history in which the man was food gatherer and hunter. In this stage, man was unable to produce (‘surplus’).

Since the means of production were primitive and control over nature was insignificant, man produced less than the requirement and hence the society was devoid from surplus production. Production was a community affair and in the absence of surplus production there was no such class like rich and poor. It was an egalitarian society.

Growth and quantitative changes in forces of production continued. As production improved, communal nature broke, and changed into family units. Private property arose and families started to own means of production. Contradiction between communal forces and exploiting classes, led to qualitative changes - into ancient mode of production. Thus there was a conflict of opposites which resulted in negation of primitive communal societies, into a new form, slave or ancient societies.

(ii) Ancient (or Slave) Societies. In this stage, a new mode of production i.e. animal husbandry and horticulture started. This new mode of production gave birth to a new form of society which Marx called ‘ancient society’. Only in this stage, first time ever society produced surplus.

To get control over surplus production, society had the conflict in which one emerged winner (haves) and another the loser (have-nots). This way first time ever two unequal economic classes came into being. Marx called it masters and the slaves. The master had absolute control over the slaves. They can buy, sell and even kill their slaves. On the other hand, slaves were the means of production for their masters who were deprived from all the rights. They had no right of property, family etc. Hence Marx believed that the surplus production and control over it by one class was the main cause of the emergence of unequal society in history.

Contradiction between slaves and slave-owners.When condition matured, slaves revolted and resulted in feudal societies. (This can be considered qualitative change, though there are quantitative interpretation.)

(iii) Feudal Societies As human beings learned the art of using the animal for agriculture, a new mode of production emerged in which land and animals became the significant aspect of means of production and hence the slaves became irrelevant. In this new setup, two new classes feudal Lords and Serfs came in existence. The ‘lords’ had the control over a piece of land as a political arrangement with the state. In this, lords (feudal) had to support the state through their personal army and the king/state used to give absolute control over a piece of land.

Marx believed that though masters were replaced by the lords and slaves by serfs, technically serfs were free from the lords but practically they were under the control. This way again two unequal economic classes – lords and serfs existed in this new society.

At the mature stage, they came to know the inanimate sources of energy like water, wind etc. Towns begin to emerge, trade, commerce and industry started to flourish. Serfs opposed feudal lords, and started working with industries, which meant negation of feudalism and emergence of capitalism.

(iv) Capitalist Society Agriculture was replaced by the factory system as a new mode of production. This new mode of production was different than the previous in many ways.

For the first time ever the production was done for the profit and not for consumption and family was replaced as a unit of production by the factory system.

Secondly, the relation between the capitalist and the workers was based on ‘cash nexus’. Other to this, means of production had shifted from man to machine, consequently, mass production took place. Thus capital became most significant in the means of production.

Marx believed that this new mode of production was completely different than the previous mode of production which gave birth to two new economic classes – bourgeoisie and proletariat.

The relationship between the bourgeoisie and proletariats was highly estranged based on anonymity and tense because nature of capitalist society in itself is highly exploitive.

Contradiction: Social character of production and private character of appropriation. This basic economic contradiction gives rise to economic crises and unemployment, causes fierce battle between bourgeoisie and proletariats – these are quantitative change.

The working class would bring about a socialist revolution, where capitalistic production relations would be abolished and a new communist socio-economic order would usher – qualitative changes.

(v) Communism Communism passes through two stages, socialism and communism. In socialism stage there will be no private ownership, or private property. All production will have public ownership. Proletariat would jointly own the means of production, distribution will be to satisfy the needs of people. This is the stage of dictatorship of proletariat.

Later, state will wither away, making communism possible. In communism, society will be without any contradiction between relations of production. Here dialectic will unfold (stretch) itself, and the contradiction would once again become with human beings and nature, and with higher technology, human beings would be able to exploit nature more efficiently.

Conclusion: This way Marx identified that matter or capital is the engine of all histories which takes society from one stage to another. He believed means of production and relation of production together make mode of production which changes it from one form to another which subsequently changes other aspect of the society.

As human beings act upon environment and transform it, in the process they themselves get transformed. This transformation is rejected in form of new needs and once again he acts on environment to satisfy those needs. This is how it is a continuous process of production. This is how man and environment are in a state of flux unlike other animals who exists as parasites. This is nothing but idea of social PRAXIS (translating an idea into action) in which man and environment are continuously changing.

Hence, Marx identified the cause of change in society from one stage to another and because of his belief and analysis that ‘matter determines the course of history’, this theory is known as theory of ‘historical materialism’.

Criticism: 1. The interpretation of history by Marx is wrong interpretation. History follows facts, dates and other objective method while explaining the history, Marx defied it because he has not mentioned the periods of different stages and neither he has given any factual evidences. According to Robertson, ‘it is more like a story than the history’.

2. According to Max Weber, Marx identified only two classes in all the ages of Europe, except primitive communism, but the presence of middle class in industrial society was ignored, which is a lacuna in the theory of historical materialism.

3. Marx’s theory is considered as an economic deterministic theory which believes that economy changes the society, but social change in itself is a complex phenomena which is determined by many factors like political, geographical, technological etc.


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