Dialectics of Nature or not?

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 Martin Jenkins

The term ‘Dialectical Materialism’ was first coined by Russian Marxist Georgi Plekhanov in his essay For the Sixtieth Anniversary of Hegel’s Death (1891). Developing upon the materialist inversion of GWF Hegel’s Idealist Dialectic, Dialectical Materialism (a term never used by Karl Marx) was proffered as providing an Ontology – an explanation of the processes of Nature. Applied to the history and movements of human society, Dialectical Materialism underpins Historical Materialism (or the ‘Materialist Conception of History as Marx called it).

Whereas for Hegel, the Dialectic was the movement of Reason/ God overcoming and incorporating its otherness in a cumulative, progressive teleology (see Encyclopedia Logic #79 for Hegel’s account of the Dialectic as the three moments of Understanding — Dialectic/ Negative Reason — Speculative/ Positive Reason), for Dialectical Materialism, nature actually and objectively changes Dialectically through contradictions and the overcoming of said contradictions. Marx himself never applied dialectics to nature but after his death, many Marxists did. To this day, such a move remains controversial.
Marx’s lifelong collaborator and friend Friedrich Engels composed an unfinished book Dialectics of Nature which was only published long after his death in the 1930’s. Here, he prescribed three ‘Laws’ of materialist dialectics which he extracted from Hegel.

1. Quantity into Quality. Where for example, an increase in temperature can cause a change in state (heated water boils and changes into steam)
2 Interpenetration of Opposites. Where the two sides of a contradiction mutually reinforce each other (e.g. the external and internal process of a plant seed both need and impede each other)
3. Negation of the Negation. Where what is impeding a process (the Negation) is itself negated (e.g. the seed is negated to become a root, the root is negated to become a flower, the flower is negated by the seeds it has produced. This is the site of Contradiction and it’s outcome although the above two ‘laws’ are involved in the dialectical process.

The so-called ‘three laws’ became sacrosanct and official philosophy in the Soviet Union, especially after Joseph Stalin published Dialectical and Historical Materialism (1938). An official if extremely crude Philosophy which gave intellectual support and legitimacy to the state which described itself as Marxist.

The veracity of Dialectical Materialism remains contentious among thinking Marxists. Western or Hegelian Marxists tend be be sceptical of any dialectics of Nature. Problems arise when, for instance, Scientific Laws which apply to Nature, are applied to Human beings. Natural Scientific Laws claim to account for phenomena which are mechanistic, blind, deterministic whereas, human beings are conscious, thinking beings capable of so-called free will: so can the former be applied to the latter?

Mia, if you haven’t already, you might want to read The Part played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man by Engels. Engels employs Darwinian evolution to account for human development.

Karl Kautsky wrote quite a bit about Marxism and Darwinism in, for example Ethics and the Materialist Conception of History (Ch3. The Ethic of Darwinism). Finally, Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002) who was a Paleontologist and Biologist, maintained that processes in Nature echoed the Laws of the Dialectic.

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