Dialectical Materialism

This is Sections a and b of Chapter 1 of Beyond Classical Marxism. This topic is presented much more thoroughly in A Reformulation of Dialectical Materialism.

     “In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production.  The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness.  The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political, and intellectual life.  It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms – with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto.  From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters.  Then begins an era of social revolution.  The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.” [From the Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy by Karl Marx, 1859.]

Thus does Marx lay out the theory of historical materialism:  it is the economic system which determines current ideas (“materialism”), and not the other way around (“idealism”).

     But is this rigorously true?  It evidently is, in stable times for a society.  But when society undergoes fundamental transformation, is it not ideas which come to the forefront – ideas about what ought to be, about what can be?  What are the limitations, and role, of ideas in effecting possible social change?  To better understand such matters, it is useful to place social change in the context of dialectical development.

     My book, A Reformulation of Dialectical Materialism, incorporates feminist theory into the traditional Marxist presentation of the science of dialectical materialism.  Doing this requires a clear understanding of dialectical development, and its pages 24-44 accordingly present an enhanced scheme of human society.  We shall not here go into great detail about this scheme, but refer the reader to the book and to a figure (also given here) which depicts the scheme as follows.

     Society is organized most broadly as an inner circle (the “Shell of Being”) surrounded by a “Shell of Consciousness”.  The inner shell is relevant to materialism, while the outer shell concerns idealism.  Each of these shells is divided into adjacent halves, with one half concerning personal interactions (individualism, informed by feminist theory) and the other with social interactions (collectivism, starting from traditional Marxist theory).  Within the Personal Half-Sphere are (from center out) the categories of Biological, Personal, and Family within the Shell of Being) and those of Emotions and Rational Thought within the Shell of Consciousness.  Within the Social Half-Sphere (again from center out) are the categories of Economy, Community, and Political within the Shell of Being and those of Ideology and Science within the Shell of Consciousness.

     There are definite relations among all these categories which make useful an analysis of what is possible and what is not possible in influencing the development of human society.  The point is that, in a quiescent state, a half-shell below (farther from the center) another half-shell “determines” what takes place in that higher half-shell; this is exactly what Marx’s materialism says, in viewing the economy as determining the “whole immense superstructure” (in the figure, the half-shells of Community, Political, Ideology, and Science in the Social Half-Sphere).

     However, here is where dialectical development comes in.  A higher half-shell can transform a half-shell below it when it (the higher half-shell) is dominant, resulting in a qualitatively new lower half-shell which becomes dominant in a new quiescent state.  Furthermore, for this to occur, any half-shells between the lower and higher ones under consideration must also be destabilized and transformed.

     Thus, for example, the Politics half-shell may possibly become dominant and transform the Economy (the goal of socialists who are not beholden to economic determinism!), but this will also entail a transformation of the Community half-shell.  The dominance of the Political half-shell is inherently unstable (since it is so far from the center, in this scheme), so we have an example of the law of dialectics called the “negation of the negation”:  the ascendancy of the Politics half-shell “negates” the quiescent dominance of the Economy half-shell, but when the Economy regains its dominance, it has been transformed into a “higher” (by definition) state – “the negation of the negation”.

     This dialectics scheme presented here has all sorts of possibilities for understanding the development of human society.  For example, the part of the Shell of Consciousness in the Social Half-Sphere consists of the Ideology and Science half-shells, with the Ideology half-shell being below the Science half-shell.  And is it not true that, in human history, ideology has usually dominated science?  (Think religion, or the rejection by mindless Trump supporters of science!)  Furthermore, there are various possibilities for lateral influences within the scheme, between half-shells of the Personal Half-Sphere and those of the Social Half-Sphere.

     It is certainly useful (and mandatory!) that this scheme accurately depicts Marx’s materialism; indeed, this is the meaning of the Shell of Being’s being below the Shell of Consciousness.  Of particular interest to the present study is that, in the Personal Half-Sphere, the Emotions half-shell is below the Rational Thought half-shell.  This is an expression of the thesis, to be developed in Chapter 4, that we all are fundamentally irrational beings, subject overwhelmingly to our emotions in determining what we do, although at times rational thought can gain dominance and transform these emotions.