Simplified Marxist dialectics

Mia asked:

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

Answer by Paul Fagan

Mia, may I say that if you are studying dialectical materialism in middle school then you are already intellectually advanced! Most people never study this subject, and I was only introduced to it at university.

However, I personally, would never apply dialectic materialism to understanding natural history and evolution: as it is designed to be applied to understanding the pressures working within and shaping societies. Different mechanisms work within nature and I do not feel qualified to pass comment here.

What follows is my own basic interpretation of the matter. Quite simply, a society would be structured on the assumption that the people in charge, group A, would wish to keep their privileged position and construct laws to maintain this arrangement. In doing so, they keep the people who are not in charge, group B, effectively oppressed.

While this situation continues, group B would gain knowledge or develop new material technologies or develop new material needs and desires. This force from below would eventually overturn group A’s superiority, possibly by revolution, and group B would then be in charge of society.

While group B are in charge, they repeat the behaviour of the previous rulers by maintaining their privileged position and constructing legislation to uphold this arrangement. In doing so, they keep a new group of people who are not in charge, group C, effectively oppressed.

Group C would be expected to gain knowledge and develop new material requirements and the process of new groups in society asserting their authority would continue with group C becoming dominant. On some accounts this process would continue forever, and on other accounts, a state of abundant material wealth would emerge negating the need for further changes of a ruling group.

This sort of approach is often credited to Marx and Engels although their ideas built upon Hegel’s previous theorising. Marxists, communists and socialists often favour this approach as it allows an understanding of the development of western societies. For instance, societies where the royalty acted as dictators gave way to feudalism when a wider aristocracy asserted its authority and demanded a share of power; liberal societies replaced feudalism as the bourgeois asserted their authority and again gained a share of power. However, this approach can also be used to anticipate what future societies may look like:  to explain, socialist societies may expect to replace liberal societies when the majority of workers assert their authority and relieve the bourgeois of their power.

For further reading, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has an entry on Karl Marx (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/marx/ ) and section 4.3 entitled ‘Functional Explanation’ is particularly useful here. Also, the Wikipedia entry on Dialectical materialism (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dialectical_materialism) describes how persons following Marx and Engels have interpreted and used this theory. With regards to predicting the future and explaining why socialism has not yet overturned liberalism, you might like to read my previous article entitled, Why did Marxism Fail?

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