What Is Wrong With Dialectical Materialism?
by Rosa Lichtenstein
This article originally appeared a few years ago in Weekly Worker, and has been slightly edited.
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As is the case with all my Essays, nothing here should be read as an attack either on Historical Materialism -- a theory I fully accept --, or, indeed, on revolutionary socialism. I remain as committed to the self-emancipation of the working class and the dictatorship of the proletariat as I was when I first became a revolutionary nearly thirty years ago.
The difference between Dialectical Materialism and Historical Materialism, as I see it, is explained here.
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Summary Of My Main Objections To Dialectical Materialism
Abbreviations Used At This Site
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(1) Quantity And Quality
(2) The Unity And Interpenetration Of Opposites
(3) The Negation Of The Negation
Has History Refuted Dialectics?
In the space available I can only outline a few of my reasons for rejecting Dialectical Materialism.
I will begin by looking at a handful of my criticisms of Engels's Three Laws'.
Quantity And Quality
Engels asserted the following:
[Q]ualitative changes can only occur by the quantitative addition or subtraction of matter or motion (so-called energy)…. Hence it is impossible to alter the quality of a body without addition or subtraction of matter or motion, i.e. without quantitative alteration of the body concerned.1
Such changes are neither smooth nor gradual:
...[Q]uantitative changes, accumulating gradually, lead in the end to changes of quality, and that these changes of quality represent leaps, interruptions in gradualness…. That is how all Nature acts….2
And yet, there are many things in nature that undergo smooth qualitative change -- for example, melting metal, glass, plastic, butter, toffee and chocolate. Sure, some things change "nodally", but many do not. So, the "nodal" aspect of this Law is defective.
Unfortunately, this implies that it cannot be used to argue that the transformation from capitalism to socialism must be nodal too, for we have no idea whether this transformation is one of these exceptions. Plainly, we could only use this Law if it had no exceptions whatsoever.
This means that the whole point of adopting this Law in the first place has now vanished.
What about 'quantity into quality'? Undeniably, many material things change qualitatively as a result of the addition or subtraction of matter or energy.
But this is not true of all qualitative difference. The order in which events take place can affect quality, too. For example, try crossing a busy main road first and looking second -- now, try it the other way round! And anyone who tries pouring half a litre of water slowly into a litre of concentrated sulphuric acid will face a long and painful stay in hospital, whereas the reverse action is perfectly safe.
Moreover, this Law is so vaguely worded that dialecticians can use it in whatever way they please. If this is difficult to believe, ask the very next dialectician you meet precisely how long a "nodal point" is supposed to last. As seems clear, if no one knows, anything from a Geological Age to an instantaneous quantum leap could be "nodal"!
And, it really isn't good enough for dialectically-inclined readers to dismiss this as mere pedantry. Can you imagine a genuine scientist refusing to say how long a crucially important interval in her theory is supposed to be, and accusing you of "pedantry" for even asking?
Next, enquire what a "quality" is. You might be told it is a property the change of which alters a process/object into something new.
Unfortunately, given this explanation of "quality" many of the examples dialecticians themselves employ would cease to work.
For instance: the most hackneyed example they use is that of water turning to ice or steam when cooled or heated. But, given the above, this would not be an example of qualitative change, since water as ice, liquid or steam is still water (i.e., H2O). Quantitative addition or subtraction of energy does not result in a qualitative change of the required sort; nothing new emerges. This substance stays H2O throughout.
Faced with that, dialecticians may be tempted to relax the definition of "quality", so that in a solid, liquid or gaseous state, water could be said to exhibit different qualities.
Unfortunately, this would rescue the above example but sink the theory. If we allow "quality" to apply to any qualitative difference, then we would have to admit the relational properties of bodies. In that case we could easily witness qualitative change where no extra matter or energy has been added. For instance, consider three animals in a row: a mouse, a pony, and an elephant. In relation to the mouse, the pony is big, but in relation to the elephant it is small. Change in quality, with no matter or energy added or subtracted.
Of course, all this is quite apart from the fact that altering the way that "quality" is understood indicates that changes in quality are now relative to an observer's choice of descriptive framework. Plainly, this introduces a fundamental element of arbitrariness into what dialecticians claim to be a scientific law.
Finally, there are substances called isomers -- i.e., molecules with exactly the same number of atoms differently arranged --, where, if the geometrical orientation of these atoms is altered, the resulting qualities of the compounds involved change. Here, we would have a change in geometry causing a change in quality, with the addition of no new matter or energy, contradicting Engels:
Hence it is impossible to alter the quality of a body without addition or subtraction of matter or motion....3 [Bold emphasis added.]
So, at the very best, this Law is merely a quaint rule of thumb (rather like: "A stitch in time saves nine"). At worst, it is like a stopped clock: totally useless, even if twice a day it tells the 'right time'.
Hence, Engels's First Law is of no use to revolutionary theory, and so has no role to play in helping to change society.
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The Unity And Interpenetration Of Opposites
This is perhaps the most important of these Laws, for it encapsulates the principle of change, as well as that of temporary stability.
Unfortunately, dialecticians have so far been entirely unclear whether things change because of their internal opposites, whether they change into these opposites (or even into one another), or, indeed, whether they create these opposites as they change:
Here are Lenin, Plekhanov and Mao:
Hegel brilliantly divined the dialectics of things...as follows: In the alternation, reciprocal dependence of all notions, in the identity of their opposites, in the transitions of one notion into another, in the eternal change, movement of notions....
[Among the elements of dialectics are the following:] [I]nternally contradictory tendencies…in [a thing]…as the sum and unity of opposites…. [This involves] not only the unity of opposites, but the transitions of every determination, quality, feature, side, property into every other [into its opposite?]….4 [Emphases in the original.]
And so every phenomenon, by the action of those same forces which condition its existence, sooner or later, but inevitably, is transformed into its own opposite….5 [Bold emphases added.]
In speaking of the identity of opposites in given conditions, what we are referring to is real and concrete opposites and the real and concrete transformations of opposites into one another....
...[A]ll processes transform themselves into their opposites. The constancy of all processes is relative, but the mutability manifested in the transformation of one process into another is absolute.6 [Bold emphases added.]
But this leaves change a complete mystery.
To see this, let us suppose that object/process A is comprised of two "internal opposites" O* and O**, and thus changes as a result.
But, O* cannot itself change into O** since O** already exists! If O** didn't already exist, according to this theory, O* could not change, for there would be no opposite to bring that about.
And it is no good propelling O** into the future so that it now
O* will change into, since O* will do no such thing unless
O** is already there in the present to make that happen!
Hence, if object/process A is already composed of a dialectical union of O* and not-O* (i.e., O**) and it 'changes' into not-O*, where is the change? All that seems to happen is that O* disappears. Thus, O* does not change into not-O*, it is just replaced by it.
At the very least, this account of change leaves it entirely mysterious how
not-O* itself came about. It seems to have popped into existence from nowhere.
It cannot have come from O*, since O* can only change because of the operation of not-O*, which does not yet exist! And pushing the process into the past (via a 'reversed' version of the negation of the negation) will merely reduplicate the above problems.
Of course, this is all quite apart from the fact that many things just do not change into their opposites (or even because of them). When was the last time you saw a male cat turn into a female cat? Your left hand into your right? An electron into a proton? Or even a material object into an immaterial one?
And are we really supposed to believe that every proletarian (as individuals or as a class) will turn into Capitalists (and/or vice versa)?
According to the above dialecticians, this must happen.
None of this implies that things cannot change, but it does mean that dialectics cannot explain why they do so.
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The Negation Of The Negation
This Law is just an extension to the previous Law, and so suffers from all the latter's weaknesses.
Engels retailed a rather unfortunate example, however:
Butterflies...spring from the egg by a negation of the egg, pass through certain transformations until they reach sexual maturity, pair and are in turn negated, dying as soon as the pairing process has been completed and the female has laid its numerous eggs.7
In fact, butterflies and moths go through the following stages:
Adult → Egg → Pupa → Chrysalis → Adult
Which is the negation of which here? And which is the negation of the negation?
And what about organisms that reproduce by splitting, such as amoebae and bacteria? In any such spit, which half is the negation and which the negation of the negation? Indeed, what about vegetative (asexual) reproduction in general, where there are no opposites (no gametes)?
Consider, too, the thoroughly reactionary life-form Myxomycota (The Slime Mould), which belongs neither to the plant nor the animal kingdom, but to the Protoctista. Its life-cycle involves the following: a giant amoebal stage, followed by a slug-like existence, which morphs into a fungal-like fruiting body, which then releases spores. Again, which is the negation, and which is the negation of the negation?
And with respect to the former USSR (post 1917): if this Law is progressive, why did it allow the revolution to decay and go into reverse?
Is modern-day Russia really then the un-negation of the negation of the negation of Tsarist Russia?
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Dialecticians tell us that truth is tested in practice. In that case, what does history reveal?
Unfortunately, it shows that Dialectical Marxism has not known much in the way of success. The 1917 revolution has been reversed, practically every single socialist state has abandoned Marxism, all four Internationals have gone down the pan, and few revolutionary parties these days can boast active membership levels that rise much above the risible. To cap it all, billions of workers world-wide not only ignore dialectics, they have never even heard of it.
And yet, most dialecticians claim that dialectics lies at the heart of revolutionary theory and practice. If so, why have none of them drawn the obvious conclusion that history has refuted dialectics?
Nevertheless, it is my contention that this theory is part of the reason why Dialectical Marxism is now almost synonymous with failure.
This is because such long-term lack of success suggests that Dialectical Materialism might not be quite as sound as its supporters would have us believe.
No surprise therefore: that is exactly what we have found.
More details at my site: http://anti-dialectics.co.uk/index.htm
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1. Engels, F., Dialectics Of Nature (Progress Publishers, 1954), p.63.
2. Plekhanov, G., The Development Of The Monist View Of History (Progress Publishers, 1956), p.163.
3. Engels, F., Dialectics Of Nature (Progress Publishers, 1954), p.63.
4. Lenin, V., Philosophical Notebooks, Collected Works, Volume 38 (Progress Publishers, 1961). pp.196-97, 221-22.
5. Plekhanov, G., The Development Of The Monist View Of History (Progress Publishers, 1956), p.77.
6. Mao Zedong, 'On Contradiction', in Selected Works Volume One (Foreign Languages Press, 1964), pp.340-42.
7. Engels, F., Anti-Dühring (Foreign Languages Press, 1976), p.173.
Word Count: 2340
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