Study Circle 20 of 2019: Dialectical Materialism and Historical Materialism

DYFI CUC organised the twentieth study circle of this year on Sunday, July 21. In this session, we studied half of the text, ‘Dialectical Materialism and Historical Materialism’, authored by J. Stalin in 1938.

The text is a simple and basic introduction to Dialectical Materialism, which can be described as a method of studying a system on a material basis, by understanding the various contradictions within it. The changes that arise in, or the evolution of, the system in question is a result of opposing forces exerted by these contradictions within it.

The etymology of the word ‘Dialectics’ goes back to the Greek word ‘Dialego’, which, Stalin wrote, “was the art of arriving at the truth by disclosing the contradictions in the argument of an opponent and overcoming these contradictions.”

While Marx learnt about Dialectics from Hegel, Marxist Dialectics is different from the latter’s in that it is Materialist. Hegel, who was an idealist, believed that consciousness has the original or objective existence, while what the consciousness perceives – namely matter – exists only in the consciousness.  

Contrary to Idealism, Materialism is the understanding that the matter exists in the objective world, independent of the consciousness which perceives it, and that consciousness itself is a product of matter. 

As Marx points out, “Our consciousness and thinking, however supra-sensuous they may seem, are the product of a material, bodily organ, the brain. Matter is not a product of mind, but mind itself is merely the highest product of matter.”

While Marx closely studied Ludwig Feuerbach who led the charge against Hegel’s idealism and sides with him in the materialist camp in opposition to the idealists, he nevertheless pointed out that Feuerbach’s approach to materialism had a serious flaw. Along with discarding the idealism of the Hegelian method, Feuerbach also discarded the dialectics in it.

This leads to a kind of materialism that tends to assume the forces which govern a system under observation to be a given or static, without questioning what the tussle between which contradictions gave rise to these forces in the first place, or, for that matter, the resolution of which of the contradictions can bring about what kind of changes to these governing forces themselves.          

Thus, Feuerbach, despite being a fierce advocate of materialism, “remained… bound by the traditional idealist fetters.” Freeing materialist thought from these fetters, Marx and Engels reaffirmed the objective existence of the material world, and established that the changes that occur in it, or to it, are a result of the opposing forces exerted by the contradictions that exist within. 

This applies not only to the physical world, not only to the evolution of humankind, but also to the development of human societies – to its evolution from one form of organisation to another (primitive communism to slave society to feudalism to capitalism).

In the next session of the study circle, we will be completing reading and discussing the remaining half of the essay in which, by drawing on the development of tools from stone age onwards, Stalin seeks to demonstrate the relationship between the productive forces of a given society relations and “relations of production”, i.e the relationships that emerge between humans as a result of their relation to the means of production. For example, slave and slave-owner, lord and serf, worker and capitalist.

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