Dialectical materialism – brief explanation

Mia asked:

Hello, I am a student in middle school, and due to my unfortunate intellectual immaturity, I’m have trouble understanding dialectical materialism. I have two questions on the subject:

If you ever to look at, for example, Darwin’s theory of evolution, through a dialectical materialism thought process, how would your opinion on the subject change?

Why was dialectical materialism created? Did it support a certain political perspective?

Hope to hear from you soon.

 Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

I’m impressed that as a middle school student you seem ready to tackle socio-philosophical issues! But I will keep things radically simple. It is more important to have an overall grasp; the details can follow later.

Dialectical materialism involves a conception of society as an economy, i.e. producer and consumer of commodities (goods and services). Its basis is, that every citizen in any society has needs that must be fulfilled for them to live a decent life. Therefore they have to work and be paid for it, so as to be able to go out and buy what they need. But this issue has always been a huge problem for mankind. Throughout history, societies have been stratified into “classes” — the rich, the middling and the poor. Most of the time this does not reflect the deserving of the people who make up these classes. Rather it is the case that some people enjoy privileges based on birth right, i.e. nobility, large property ownership, industrialism, fame as entertainers etc. The poor, on the other hand, are often denied the opportunity to crawl out of poverty on their own merit.

This was Marx’s perspective when he founded the Communist Movement. His dialectical materialism served for the analysis of what has to change in society for everyone to get an adequate share of what is called in England, the “common wealth”. It is dialectical in that it comprises a pattern of examinations in form of a disputation, where (e.g.) two conflicting social situations A and B are to be reconciled in a synthesis C, which ought to benefit both parties. Thereafter the enquiry continues with C and D and so on. The word ‘materialism’ indicates that it is goods and services that are under debate, not merely theoretical principles.

Ideally, a civil society should ensure that all the benefits are equally distributed, or at least in the form of merit that reflects the quality and quantity of individual input. Whether any communist state has ever achieved this, may be doubted, but that’s the ideology behind dialectical materialism.

Where does Darwinism fit into this? Basically not at all. Its catch phrase “survival of the fittest” tells you by implications that it emerged from the mercantile environment of England, where the fittest are invariably those who know how to play the game of capitalism to their advantage. So this ideology (when transferred to politics) is merely another form of generating privilege. Bear in mind now that Marx worked in England, the home of evolution theory and of capitalism, and that his life span overlapped partially with Darwin. It explains something. But irrespective of this accidental coincidence, Darwinism and Marxism are absolutely incompatible.

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