M-TH: dialectical materialism

James Farmelant farmelantj at SPAMjuno.com
Tue Aug 3 04:38:07 MDT 1999

On Mon, 02 Aug 1999 21:34:16 -0700 Sam Pawlett <rsp at uniserve.com> writes:
>automata at zeus.tantium.net wrote:
>> Precisely what is the nature of dialectical materialism? I have seen
>> descriptions of it as a method, theory, doctrine and philosophy.
> Well, yeah, it depends on who you ask and who you read. Marx himself
>never used the term though Engels I believe did.

Actually not even Engels used this term, I think that he did refer
to materialist dialectics.  The term "dialectical materialism"
was first coined by the proletarian thinker Joesph Dietzgen in
the 1870s a person much admired by Marx & Engels for having
independently arrived at views similar to their own (see *Ludwig
Feuerbach*, part iv).  However, it was the "father of Russian
Marxism", Georgii Plekhanov who popularized the term starting
around 1890.

>I take it to mean the
>way Engels meant it that the 3 principles of dialectics(cf. Engels
>Dialectics of Nature p26ff, intro by JBS Haldane) negation of the
>negation, transformation of quantity into quality and the
>interpenetrations of opposites occur in physical nature. That physical
>nature is governed by these 3 principles. They may act as regulative
>principles in the same way the "laws" of supply and demand do i.e.
>actual states of affairs may tend towards these laws.
>  The Dialectical Biologist by Levins and Lewontin is one of the
>current attempts to construct a kind of weak dialectical materialism.

Anything beyond a weak dialectical materialism seems to me to
represent a lapse back into idealist metaphysics IMO.

>The Soviet  Marxism-Leninists was big into dialectical materialism
>though  I haven't read enough Soviet authors to say much about their
>conception. Jim F?

I am hardly an expert on Soviet dialectical materialism but from
my limited reading on the subject, it is evident that it is something
that over the years underwent considerable evolution and
development.  Of course writings like Engels' *Socialism:
Utopian and Scientific* and *Anti-Duhring*, and Lenin's
*Materialism and Empirio-Criticism* were taken as key texts
but from the beginning divergent interpretations always existed.
Thus during the early years of the Soviet Union, Soviet thought
was divided between two rival schools, the mechanists and
the Deborinists.  The mechanists held that the natural sciences
embodied the Marxist world-view so that a separate Marxist
philosophy was not required while the philosopher Deborin
and his followers held that Marxist philosophy should act as
a guide in all scientific research.  This debate was eventually
settled by fiat under Stalin who suppressed both schools and
dismissed their adherents from their posts (at least some
of whom eventually wound up in Stalin's labor camps).
Stalin  in 1938 published his *History of the CPSU* which
included a chapter on "Dialectical and Historical Materialism"
which became the authoritative text on dialectical materialism
in the Soviet Union until his death.  Among other things it
was asserted that "the world is by its very nature material,"
that "matter is an objective reality existing outside and
independent of the cognizing subject", that "philosophical
materialism asserts that there are no unknowable things
in the world."  It asserted four principles of dialectics including:
transformation of quantity into quality, the unity of opposites,
the law of universal connections, and law of universal
mutability.  Historical materialism was regarded as the application
of dialectical materialism to social science.

In the years following Stalin's death, dialectical materialist
thought in the USSR became more liberal.  Thus during the
1950s and 1960s Soviet philosophers debated the relations
between dialectical logic and formal logic, especially the issue
of whether dialectics was inconsistent with the formal law
of non-contradiction.  Eventually most Soviet philosophers
came to the conclusion that dialectics if properly understood
was consistent with formal logic including the law of non-contradiction.
Soviet philosophers became more open to certain currents of
thought from the West including especially Anglo-American
analytical philosophy.  Soviet philosophers wrote extensively
on Russell, Carnap, Tarski, Quine and even Popper.  The
attitude seemed to be that it was possible to incorporate the
positive achievements of these Western thinkers into the
framework of dialectical materialism.

There were other interesting debates too over such issues
as the ones between strict adherents of Pavlovian reflexology
in psychology with the followers of Vygotsky.  In part these
debates pitted those who adhered to a strict mechanistic
determinism with those who regarded a mechanistic
determinism as undialectical.  To some extent the issues
raised in the 1920s in the debates between "mechanists"
and the Deborinists kept on reappearing in new forms
in Soviet thought.

                Jim Farmelant

>  Another work on dialectics which criticises dialectical materialism
>from a kind of humanist standpoint  is The Critique of Dialectical
>Reason by J-P Sartre. Tough going, but worth it. Same with I.Meszeros.
>Sam Pawlett
>p.s. I *miss* the Lewinsky scandal!

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