Among the opportunist sectors of the “left” that have dominated the socialist movement for decades since the counter-revolution in the socialist bloc, the study of Marxism-Leninism, or of theory in general, has been viewed as an idle pursuit of self-styled revolutionaries that engage in no practical activity and consider socialism something merely to read about and debate over. Dialectical materialism in particular is maligned as something overly abstract, academic, and detached from practical activity. To say that dialectical materialism is something every revolutionary should study is even regarded as “elitism.”
This is nothing new, as even in Marx and Engels’ time there were those petty-bourgeois socialists like Dühring who slandered the law of the transformation of quantity into quality as “hazy and confused notions.” In Lenin’s time, there were the empirio-criticists, like Berman, that considered Marxist dialectics “mysticism.” The attempts to philosophically discredit Marxist theory by attacking dialectical materialism do not end there, but it is enough to see that rejection of dialectical materialism is characteristic of these revisionists that seek to deprive the proletariat of one of its most powerful tools of analysis. This leaves the task of explaining the meaning of dialectical materialism, and its usefulness to the proletariat, to the class-conscious strata of the working class, the communists.
What is dialectical materialism?
Dialectical materialism is the philosophical aspect of the Marxist-Leninist world outlook. Dialectical materialism is dialectical in method and materialist in content. It recognizes that matter and consciousness exist as distinct phenomena, although matter is primary and consciousness is secondary. This is what makes it materialistic and opposed to idealism which holds that consciousness is primary and matter secondary.
Dialectical materialism also recognizes that all the various phenomena in the world are part of one unfolding, interconnected process of matter in motion; This process of motion, or development, is driven by the internal contradictions within these various phenomena. This is what makes it dialectical and opposed to the metaphysical method which holds that different phenomena are independent, separate, and unchanging.
Dialectical materialism contains the most general laws of the development of nature. The principle laws of dialectics are: the law of the unity and struggle of opposites, the law of quantitative change leading to qualitative change, and the law of the negation of the negation. These laws and the concepts of dialectics can be used to understand any phenomenon since it is from the analysis of various fields of study that the laws of dialectics were inferred in the first place. However, every field of study also has laws that are particular to that field. To gain a comprehensive understanding of a particular field of knowledge, it’s not enough to merely study the laws of dialectics. The particular laws and categories within that field must be studied separately and understood within the framework of the general laws of dialectics.
Why study dialectical materialism?
If the laws and concepts in dialectical materialism are too general to teach us about particular fields of knowledge, then why do Marxist-Leninists stress the importance of studying dialectical materialism? This is because in the process of studying the special concepts and laws in a particular field, by analyzing how particular laws correspond to the general laws of dialectics we can more easily notice theoretical errors and the vestiges of an idealistic or metaphysical world outlook.
If the study of something like psychology were to reveal to us theories that posit that consciousness is the determining factor and matter is secondary, or ideas that regard aspects of human psychology or our social environment as immutable, then those ideas must be put under the most intense scrutiny and criticism since they contradict everything humanity has come to learn about change and development. Dialectical materialism presents us with universal tools for criticism and analysis.
Of course, this is especially important when applied to the study of history and society since replacing the capitalist system with the socialist system is the monumental task we are primarily concerned with. Dialectical materialism applied to the study of human society is called historical materialism. The Marxist-Leninist analysis of capitalism and proletarian revolution is grounded in this theory of historical materialism. It is what imbues communists with the knowledge that capitalism is not eternal and that its destruction lies in the same internal contradiction that caused the fall of every preceding social and economic system, that is, the contradiction between the exploiting and exploited classes.
Using historical materialism to analyze the social theories of bourgeois sociologists, we find ample reason to criticize the pervasive idea that any social system would be permanent, much less capitalism which is bringing the world to the brink of world war and environmental catastrophe. If every other social system at some point didn’t exist, then came into being, then ceased to exist, what makes capitalism the one and only system that does not correspond to this process? To that question, the bourgeois social theorists have no satisfactory answers.
Historical materialism also provides the means to criticize the theories of social reformers that believe that capitalism can be replaced with socialism through reforms. This contradicts the dialectical law of quantitative change causing abrupt qualitative change, which is expressed in history by the fact that revolution always precedes a change from one social system to another, including the change from capitalism to socialism through the proletarian revolution. The study of dialectical materialism is integral for cultivating a solid proletarian world outlook that imparts confidence and certainty to the practical work we must undertake to prepare ourselves, and our class, for its counteroffensive against the capitalist class.