A Short Primer on Dialectics

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“Dialectics” is one of those terms that might seem like a buzz-word in the Marxist movement. Certainly, it is peppered throughout theoretical works, often with little explanation. Many of us are indeed guilty of using the term frivolously from time to time (myself certainly included). Yet we should absolutely not dismiss dialectics as merely a catch-word used to gain “Marxist-cred.” Dialectics, at least in its Marxist variant, can be an incredibly powerful tool in aiding our understanding of dynamic social forces, the tide of history, and ultimately what it will take to transcend capitalism once and for all.

Dialectics is a way of studying the phenomena of the world in a way that is quite a bit different than formal logic. Logic is undoubtedly very useful in many instances, but it has its limitations. Even the fundamental axioms of logic, which often seem intuitively obvious to western thinkers (e.g. A = A), only really hold when looking at the world at fixed moments in time. The empirical method, which predominates in most fields of science and is fundamentally founded in logic, involves taking measurements of real-world phenomena (necessarily captured at fixed moments in time) and attempts to form theories about how the world works from these empirical measurements. Undoubtedly, the empirical method is useful — we cannot be solipsistic and entirely denounce formal logic and empirical methods  simply because they have limitations. But limitations they do have. When formal logic and empiricism attempt to make claims about how things change over time, especially in the complex worlds of history, social movements, and so on, things can get messy. The only tool available to the empirical method is essentially to take a great many fixed measurements and attempt to establish a trend. This is useful up to a point, but when dealing with fluid and complicated movements that are constantly in flux, empiricism necessarily requires that many assumptions be made for the sake of simplicity, and it is plainly impossible to capture every aspect of a phenomenon in this manner. The advantage of dialectics is that it looks at phenomena not at fixed moments in time, but in their totality. Dialectical thinking can allow one to consider extremely complex and nuanced social and historical movements, and effectively “reduce” them to instances of non-nuance in a way that is not arbitrary. Hopefully, what exactly is meant by this will make a great deal more sense later on.

The word “dialectics” comes from the Greek word dialego, which essentially means to debate. In ancient Greece, dialectics was the method of uncovering the contradictions in the argument of one’s opponent, overcoming those contradictions, and thereby reaching truth. The German Idealist G. W. F. Hegel is usually credited as formulating the foundations of the more modern form of dialectics. Yet the Marxist variety, while incorporating the “rational kernel” of Hegel’s thought, is fundamentally different. For Hegel, dialectics was essentially a process of mental gesticulation, and his idealist philosophy held that mental processes (the Idea) created the world, and that external reality was merely a manifestation of the Idea. For Marxists, it is the opposite. Dialectics is a method that describes the external world. It is a materialist dialectics. We posit that the external world exists independent of us, and our thoughts reflect our perception of that external world. Thus, dialectics is a tool that we can use to understand material reality. What follows is a brief exposition on dialectics as it applies to Marxism.


Everything is interconnected

At the end of the day, the world is not a collection of happenings unrelated to one another. Everything is interwoven and interconnected. We cannot look at phenomena in isolation; we can only understand something if we understand its relation to other things.

A familiar example is the relationship between humans and their environment. Clearly, humans affect their environment. We cut down forests, dump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, put noxious chemicals in our air and water, etc. Of course our affect on the environment need not be negative. At various moments, humans have developed mechanisms of attaining mastery over nature but in ways that are sustainable and not nearly so destructive. The point though is that human actions obviously have an impact on the natural world. However, this is not simply a one-way relationship; our environment also shapes human actions. Let’s take the example of forests. People affect the forest by logging. But let’s suppose a society logs to such an unsustainable degree that eventually, there are no more trees. This society would have to completely reorganize itself away from dependence upon lumber. In other words, it is clear that not only do humans affect the environment by logging, but that the environment affects human society — the presence (or lack thereof) of natural resources plays a big role in determining societal structure and human actions.

Another example is pollution. The act of putting dangerous chemicals into the environment obviously affects the environment, but the changes in the environment pollution brings also come back and influence the way human society is structured. For instance, polluting the lakes and rivers can eventually pose a major problem for access to fresh water, which can cause drastic changes in how human society is organized. The point of all this is to note that humans and the environment are fundamentally interrelated. We cannot really understand the relationship between humans and the environment without understanding this interconnected-ness. And this is a general principle applying to all things.


Contradictions exist in all things

Much ado was made among Chinese revolutionaries about how “one divides into two.” Indeed, this is the most important aspect of dialectics. All things contain contradictions. In a capitalist world, one of the major contradictions is that between the proletariat — those who live wholly or mainly by selling their labor-power — and the capitalists, who buy the labor-power of the proletariat and exploit their labor. There is also a contradiction between imperialist nations and oppressed nations, a contradiction between humans and their environment, contradictions within the proletariat and within the capitalist class themselves, contradictions within the Marxist movement, contradictions within reactionary movements, etc. etc. The fundamental point is this: all things are made up of two aspects which are constantly in struggle with one another, and these struggling contradictions make up a unified whole. When two aspects within a unified whole are struggling against one another, we call this a “unity of opposites” or “dialectical unity.”


The nature of change: quantitative to qualitative

The world is constantly changing. The direction of motion of something is fundamentally determined by the interplay between the contradictions within that thing. For example, the direction in which the world moves today is in large part determined by the struggle between the imperialist nations and the oppressed nations.

The way in which things move is from quantitative change to qualitative change. A quantitative change is a small, almost imperceptible change that does not alter the fundamental aspects of something. A qualitative change is a sudden leap that changes the essence of a thing. The world moves by accumulating quantitative changes, until they accumulate to the point where a sudden, qualitative leap occurs.

A good analogy is the boiling of water. If water is resting at 50 degrees C, and I increase the temperature to 51 degrees C, the water is still water. This is a quantitative change. However, I can keep making these quantitative changes, increasing the temperature degree by degree, to 60 degrees, 70 degrees, and so on, until I reach 100 degrees C. At this point, a sudden leap occurs. The water begins boiling. This is a qualitative change. Water becomes steam. A number of quantitative changes, which individually did not fundamentally alter the essence of the water, eventually accumulated to the point where a sudden, qualitative leap occurred: the water turned into steam.

Dialectics holds that all change operates in this manner. An example is how class consciousness is attained among the proletariat in a capitalist society. The interplay of the contradictions within society make almost imperceptible, quantitative changes that affect workers’ thinking. But eventually, the accumulation of those quantitative changes begets a qualitative leap: at a certain point, the proletariat breaks with the capitalist order, and it overthrows the capitalist class.


Principal and secondary contradictions

As already mentioned, contradictions exist in all things. But in a complex system of many contradictions, one of these contradictions is necessarily the principal one. That is, at any given moment, one contradiction is the main one which plays the dominant role in shaping the way things change. Other contradictions are secondary contradictions. This is not to say that the secondary contradictions do not matter or have no affect on the world. Secondary contradictions are important, but they play a subsidiary role and are mediated by the principal contradiction.

For instance, the principal contradiction globally today is that between imperialism and the oppressed nations. The struggle between the interests of imperialist nations, who seek to ransack the world and exploit the labor of the oppressed nations, and the interests of the oppressed nations themselves is the main contradiction which affects how things change in the world. Some secondary contradictions are those between the bourgeoisie and proletariat in individual countries, and contradictions between imperialist countries (i.e. inter-imperialist rivalry). It is incorrect to say that all of these contradictions play an equal role in how the world is changing currently. But it is also incorrect to say that only one contradiction matters. Thus, we recognize that all of these contradictions affect how the world changes, but one of them is necessarily the dominant one, and at the current moment, that is the contradiction between imperialism and the oppressed nations.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember here is that which contradiction is principal and which contradictions are secondary can and does change with time. The principal contradiction now may be a secondary contradiction later. We must always be mindful of this and have an up-to-date analysis of what contradiction is the principal one, because this has profound implications for where we devote our energies and how we form revolutionary strategy.

If all of this is still not clear, here is one more example. The principal contradiction in the world today is that between imperialism and the oppressed nations. This means that national liberation struggles in the oppressed nations have a progressive character because they help undermine imperialism. Yet, there are also other contradictions to consider, such as the contradictions between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat in the oppressed nations, and the contradictions within the bourgeoisie itself. National liberation struggles can be led by the national bourgeoisie — that section of the bourgeoisie in oppressed nations which opposes imperialism. Even these bourgeois nationalist struggles are progressive in the sense that they can help undermine imperialism. But are struggles led by the national bourgeoisie really effective in the long run? The national bourgeoisie has a vacillating character when it comes to imperialism. They oppose it when it interferes with their profits, but once in power, the national bourgeoisie may support imperialism if it gives them a bigger cut. Moreover, the national bourgeoisie of course still exploits its “own” proletariat. Thus, being mindful of the contradictions between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, the contradictions within the bourgeoisie itself, and combining this with our knowledge of the principal contradiction today, we come to the following conclusion: the task for revolutionaries in the oppressed nations is to merge the struggle for socialism with national liberation struggles. The primary task is to undermine imperialism, and the best way to do this — the only way to do this in the long run — is to fight for socialism. That is to say, the task is to foster proletarian-led national liberation struggles.  This is an example of how dialectics, and in particular an appreciation of principal and secondary contradictions, leads us to conclusions about the strategy and tactics for communists today.


Principal and secondary aspects of a contradiction

Within a single contradiction, there are two aspects struggling against each other. Necessarily, one is always dominant over the other. If the two aspects are ever in equilibrium, it is only for a fleeting moment. One aspect out of the two is always playing a dominant role or a secondary role in how society changes. Thus, we say there are principal and secondary aspects of every contradiction.

A clear example of this is the line that demarcates socialism from capitalism. We know that societies are constantly changing. This is as true of capitalism as it is of socialism. Thus it is difficult, really impossible, to demarcate socialism from capitalism using only de jure “benchmarks” as one’s guide. A dialectical view is that capitalism is a society where the bourgeoisie and its interests are in command; a socialist society is one where the proletariat and its interests are in command. In other words, in the context of the class contradiction between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, a capitalist society is one where the class interest of the bourgeoisie is the principal aspect. A socialist society is one where the class interest of the proletariat is the principal aspect.


Antagonistic and non-antagonistic contradictions

Antagonistic contradictions are essentially those that cannot be resolved within the context of the current order of the world, those which require revolution to be resolved. Non-antagonistic contradictions are those which can be handled without great social upheaval. In a socialist society, it is of utmost importance to know the difference between antagonistic and non-antagonistic contradictions. The contradictions within the proletariat and other progressive classes are non-antagonistic. They can be resolved in the context of socialism and to some extent are healthy, as line struggle is an essential part of determining correct policies. On the other hand, the contradiction between the proletariat and the enemies of the people, the bourgeoisie (or the comprador bourgeoisie in oppressed nations) is an antagonistic contradiction that must be handled with force. This contradiction should be suppressed and the material basis for the contradiction should be eliminated from both above and below. Treating the contradictions within the proletariat and other progressive classes like antagonistic ones is detrimental. Treating the contradictions between the people and their enemies as non-antagonistic is also detrimental and spells the end of socialism. We must always be mindful of which contradictions are antagonistic and which ones are not.


Learning to think dialectically

Dialectics is an unusual method of thinking at first for many people in the western world. It may take some time for one to feel like s/he has a good grasp of it. A good way to go about this is simply to take a look at the works of skilled dialecticians, in particular Lenin and Mao (for example, Mao’s On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People).  One can also look at the arguments of modern-day Marxists which purport to be dialectical and judge whether they really apply dialectics, keeping in mind the principles discussed in this primer. The best way to learn is of course to try it yourself. While dialectics may seem foreign at first, it is a powerful tool for Marxist theory that can be used to understand the present and to develop coherent theory which will guide effective practice into the future.

- Morton Esters

Further reading:

Dialectical and Historical Materialism — J.V. Stalin

The M-L-M Basic Course by People’s March, Section 27: Mao on Philosophy

Examples of Dialectics — a compilation made in a Red Guard publication

On Contradiction — Mao Zedong