Dialectical Materialism Essay

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Dialectical materialism became the dominant philosophy of Marxism during the Second International (1889—1917) and, in a different form, the official, formulaic philosophy of all Communist Parties during Joseph Stalin’s dictatorship (1929—53).

Marx never used the term dialectical materialism. Nor did he write a comprehensive statement of ontology creating the opportunity to ”finish his incomplete project even though Marx had resisted attempts to convert his ”materialist conception into a totalizing philosophy.

Marx s materialism centered on the labor process as the mediating activity between humankind and nature and the real departure point for understanding social formations and social change. As a result, the ownership of the material conditions of production was a critical focal point. While Marx s ”guiding thread focused on key elements of material production, it did not represent a comprehensive ontology of the natural and social worlds. Marx s works attended to nuance and detail and were not consistent with the dialectical materialism that would emerge.

Engels had intermittently worked on a ”dialectics of nature that incorporated Hegel s dialectic into an eighteenth-century inspired materialism. To bring coherence to ”Marxism, Engels used Anti-Duhring to link his work on nature with Marx s work to produce a single, comprehensive ontology. Seeking the credibility of ”science, other Second International Marxists sought to develop Engels ”dialectical materialism further.

Soviet theorist Georgi Plekhanov and Lenin pursued their own Engelsian-inspired materialist philosophy which Stalin, as Lenin s heir, instituted as the official philosophy of Marxism-Leninism. Dialectical Materialism (Diamat) brought together a simplistic notion of Hegel s dialectic with a crude materialism to constitute a single, allegedly coherent science that applied to all material, biological, historical, social, and political phenomena.

Maintaining that the social and natural worlds follow the same laws of motion, Diamat’s three fundamental laws ”explained change: the transformation of quantity into quality (small quantitative changes lead to abrupt ”leaps of qualitative transformation), the unity of opposites (all phenomena are comprised of opposites which internally ”struggle with each other), and the negation of the negation (in the ”struggle of opposites, one negates the other but it is later negated, leading to a higher, more developed unity). All change, according to Diamat, resulted from the crude dialectical triad of thesis—antithesis—synthesis inherent in all social and natural phenomena.

Diamat’s significance was political rather than philosophical or scientific. By maintaining that nature and society followed the same laws, human consciousness and initiative became largely incidental aspects of the dialectically materialist totality. Moreover, Diamat’s laws held little predictive capacity, leaving the Communist Party as the authoritative interpreter of social history and the guide to further social change. Through Diamat, the Party served as both the ruling intellectual and political force in the USSR.

Karl Korsch s ([1923] 1970) Marxism and Philosophy and Georg Lukacs’s ([1923] 1971) History and Class Consciousness fundamentally undermined Diamat’s claims. Emphasizing the role of consciousness in history, Korsch and Lukacs stimulated later western Marxists to focus on questions of epistemology, ontology, and a renewed understanding of Marx s critique of Hegel. The ensuing focus on the active, mediated engagement of humankind with the ”material world was buttressed by the 1932 publication of Marx s 1844 manuscripts, and the 1940s publication of the Grundrisse. Both texts undermined Diamat as a credible legacy to Marx s materialist conception of history.


  1. Central Committee of the Communist Party ofthe Soviet Union (eds.) (1939) History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolsheviks): Short Course. Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow.
  2. Lichtheim, G. (1961) Marxism: An Historical and Critical Study. F. Praeger Publishers, New York.

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