Thursday, June 18, 2015

Reading :: Dialectical and Historical Materialism

I've dropped in the Kindle link, since that's the version I read, but this slim book is also available in its entirety at; I've copied and pasted quotes from that version.

Published in 1938, this book provides a concise and simple accounting of dialectical materialism as Stalin saw it. It could have easily been named Dialectical Materialism for Dummies or The Little Golden Book of Dialectical Materialism, and it resembles a catechism more than a theoretical work.

It begins:
Dialectical materialism is the world outlook of the Marxist-Leninist party. It is called dialectical materialism because its approach to the phenomena of nature, its method of studying and apprehending them, is dialectical, while its interpretation of the phenomena of nature, its conception of these phenomena, its theory, is materialistic
Historical materialism is the extension of the principles of dialectical materialism to the study of social life, an application of the principles of dialectical materialism to the phenomena of the life of society, to the study of society and of its history.
Stalin hastens to distinguish the dialectical method of "Marx and Engels" from that of Hegel as well as that of the ancient Greeks:
Dialectics comes from the Greek dialego, to discourse, to debate. In ancient times dialectics was the art of arriving at the truth by disclosing the contradictions in the argument of an opponent and overcoming these contradictions. There were philosophers in ancient times who believed that the disclosure of contradictions in thought and the clash of opposite opinions was the best method of arriving at the truth. This dialectical method of thought, later extended to the phenomena of nature, developed into the dialectical method of apprehending nature, which regards the phenomena of nature as being in constant movement and undergoing constant change, and the development of nature as the result of the development of the contradictions in nature, as the result of the interaction of opposed forces in nature. 
In its essence, dialectics is the direct opposite of metaphysics.
So what is a Marxist dialectics? Effectively using subheadings, Stalin breaks Marxist dialectics into its major tenets:

  • "Nature Connected and Determined": Marxist dialectics understands each phenomenon as part of a dynamic system that must be understood as a whole.
  • "Nature is a State of Continuous Motion and Change": "The dialectical method therefore requires that phenomena should be considered not only from the standpoint of their interconnection and interdependence, but also from the standpoint of their movement, their change, their development, their coming into being and going out of being."
  • "Natural Quantitative Change Leads to Qualitative Change": Citing Engels, Stalin argues that Marxist dialectics understands change in terms of incremental (quantitative) changes that reach a tipping point, resulting in qualitative changes. "The dialectical method therefore holds that the process of development should be understood not as movement in a circle, not as a simple repetition of what has already occurred, but as an onward and upward movement, as a transition from an old qualitative state to a new qualitative state, as a development from the simple to the complex, from the lower to the higher."
  • "Contradictions Inherent in Nature": "dialectics holds that internal contradictions are inherent in all things and phenomena of nature," specifically contradictions between past and future versions of a phenomenon undergoing continual development. "The dialectical method therefore holds that the process of development from the lower to the higher takes place not as a harmonious unfolding of phenomena, but as a disclosure of the contradictions inherent in things and phenomena, as a "struggle" of opposite tendencies which operate on the basis of these contradictions." Stalin quotes Lenin here for support. 
Based on these tenets, Stalin argues that "every social system and every social movement in history must be evaluated not from the standpoint of 'eternal justice' or some other preconceived idea, as is not infrequently done by historians, but from the standpoint of the conditions which gave rise to that system or that social movement and with which they are connected." Yardsticks must be relative. For instance, he says, slavery and capitalism both represented steps forward when they respectively emerged; but now, he claims, both are clearly undesirable. The world is changing, these systems represent the old world, and 

Hence, the capitalist system can be replaced by the socialist system, just as at one time the feudal system was replaced by the capitalist system. 
Hence, we must not base our orientation on the strata of society which are no longer developing, even though they at present constitute the predominant force, but on those strata which are developing and have a future before them, even though they at present do not constitute the predominant force.

Side note: Stalin likes using the word "hence" to suggest that his arguments are orderly and logical. The more he wants to appear this way, the more he produces one-sentence paragraphs, like the ones that succeed the block quote above:

Further, if the passing of slow quantitative changes into rapid and abrupt qualitative changes is a law of development, then it is clear that revolutions made by oppressed classes are a quite natural and inevitable phenomenon. 
Hence, the transition from capitalism to socialism and the liberation of the working class from the yoke of capitalism cannot be effected by slow changes, by reforms, but only by a qualitative change of the capitalist system, by revolution. 
Hence, in order not to err in policy, one must be a revolutionary, not a reformist. 
Further, if development proceeds by way of the disclosure of internal contradictions, by way of collisions between opposite forces on the basis of these contradictions and so as to overcome these contradictions, then it is clear that the class struggle of the proletariat is a quite natural and inevitable phenomenon. 
Hence, we must not cover up the contradictions of the capitalist system, but disclose and unravel them; we must not try to check the class struggle but carry it to its conclusion. 
Hence, in order not to err in policy, one must pursue an uncompromising proletarian class policy, not a reformist policy of harmony of the interests of the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, not a compromisers' policy of the "growing" of capitalism into socialism. 
Such is the Marxist dialectical method when applied to social life, to the history of society.

Stalin applies the tenets of dialectical materialism directly and broadly here. It's a little longer than "we will bury you!" but the import is the same: communism was a historical inevitability. 

Next, Stalin discusses Marxist philosophical materialism. It has these characteristics:
  • "Materialist": "Marx's philosophical materialism holds that the world is by its very nature material, that the multifold phenomena of the world constitute different forms of matter in motion, that interconnection and interdependence of phenomena as established by the dialectical method, are a law of the development of moving matter, and that the world develops in accordance with the laws of movement of matter and stands in no need of a 'universal spirit.'"
  • "Objective Reality": "the Marxist philosophical materialism holds that matter, nature, being, is an objective reality existing outside and independent of our consciousness; that matter is primary, since it is the source of sensations, ideas, consciousness, and that consciousness is secondary, derivative, since it is a reflection of matter, a reflection of being; that thought is a product of matter which in its development has reached a high degree of perfection, namely, of the brain, and the brain is the organ of thought; and that therefore one cannot separate thought from matter without committing a grave error." Stalin cites Engels here.
  • "The World and Its Laws Are Knowable": "Contrary to idealism, which denies the possibility of knowing the world and its laws, which does not believe in the authenticity of our knowledge, does not recognize objective truth, and holds that the world is full of "things-in-themselves" that can never be known to science, Marxist philosophical materialism holds that the world and its laws are fully knowable, that our knowledge of the laws of nature, tested by experiment and practice, is authentic knowledge having the validity of objective truth, and that there are no things in the world which are unknowable, but only things which are as yet not known, but which will be disclosed and made known by the efforts of science and practice." 
Appealing to the laws of dialectics again, he applies the lessons to society, declaring that political and social events can no longer be seen as accidents and that "the practical activity of the party [must be based] on the laws of development of society and on the study of these laws." Socialism isn't just a hope, it's a science; socialist humanities can be as scientific as the hard sciences. And he concludes: "The strength and vitality of Marxism-Leninism is derived from the fact that it relies upon an advanced theory which correctly reflects the needs of development of the material life of society, that it elevates theory to a proper level, and that it deems it its duty to utilize every ounce of the mobilizing, organizing and transforming power of this theory."

In the next chapter, "Historical Materialism," Stalin asks: "What, from the viewpoint of historical materialism, is meant by the 'conditions of material life of society' which in the final analysis determine the physiognomy of society, its ideas, views, political institutions, etc.?" 

"What Is the Chief Determinant Force?" he asks. "This force, historical materialism holds, is the method of procuring the means of life necessary for human existence, the mode of production of material values – food, clothing, footwear, houses, fuel, instruments of production, etc. – which are indispensable for the life and development of society." He notes the roles of 
  • productive forces in society (constituted by instruments of production, "the people who operate the instruments of production," production experience and labor skill) and
  • men's relations of production (since production is always social production.

"The first feature of production is that it never stays at one point for a long time and is always in a state of change and development, and that, furthermore, changes in the mode of production inevitably call forth changes in the whole social system, social ideas, political views and political institutions – they call forth a reconstruction of the whole social and political order." (Recall that Stalin had at this point collectivized the farms and launched industrialization.) He argues that history must be understood in terms of production; "the prime task of historical science is to study and disclose the laws of production, the laws of development of the productive forces and of the relations of production, the laws of economic development of society."

"The second feature of production is that its changes and development always begin with changes and development of the productive forces, and in the first place, with changes and development of the instruments of production." Here, Stalin gives us a history lesson reminiscent of Engels' works:
Here is a rough picture of the development of productive forces from ancient times to our day. The transition from crude stone tools to the bow and arrow, and the accompanying transition from the life of hunters to the domestication of animals and primitive pasturage; the transition from stone tools to metal tools (the iron axe, the wooden plow fitted with an iron coulter, etc.), with a corresponding transition to tillage and agriculture; a further improvement in metal tools for the working up of materials, the introduction of the blacksmith's bellows, the introduction of pottery, with a corresponding development of handicrafts, the separation of handicrafts from agriculture, the development of an independent handicraft industry and, subsequently, of manufacture; the transition from handicraft tools to machines and the transformation of handicraft and manufacture into machine industry; the transition to the machine system and the rise of modern large-scale machine industry – such is a general and far from complete picture of the development of the productive forces of society in the course of man's history. It will be clear that the development and improvement of the instruments of production was effected by men who were related to production, and not independently of men; and, consequently, the change and development of the instruments of production was accompanied by a change and development of men, as the most important element of the productive forces, by a change and development of their production experience, their labor skill, their ability to handle the instruments of production.
Stalin declares that "Five main types of relations of production are known to history: primitive communal, slave, feudal, capitalist and socialist." He discusses the basis of each system, ending with the socialist: 
The basis of the relations of production under the socialist system, which so far has been established only in the U.S.S.R., is the social ownership of the means of production. Here there are no longer exploiters and exploited. The goods produced are distributed according to labor performed, on the principle: "He who does not work, neither shall he eat." Here the mutual relations of people in the process of production are marked by comradely cooperation and the socialist mutual assistance of workers who are free from exploitation. Here the relations of production fully correspond to the state of productive forces; for the social character of the process of production is reinforced by the social ownership of the means of production. 
For this reason socialist production in the U.S.S.R. knows no periodical crises of over-production and their accompanying absurdities. 
For this reason, the productive forces here develop at an accelerated pace; for the relations of production that correspond to them offer full scope for such development.
(Indeed, the USSR did not generally suffer from overproduction.)

"The third feature of production is that the rise of new productive forces and of the relations of production corresponding to them does not take place separately from the old system, after the disappearance of the old system, but within the old system; it takes place not as a result of the deliberate and conscious activity of man, but spontaneously, unconsciously, independently of the will of man." This is because "Their conscious activity did not extend beyond their commonplace, strictly practical interests"; they did not have a scientific understanding of history to help them foresee changes in production.

Stalin ends with a long quote from Marx, describing the essence of historical materialism. Then he ends the book:
Such is Marxist materialism as applied to social life, to the history of society. 
Such are the principal features of dialectical and historical materialism.
And there it is, the end of this short book. 

I found this book tremendously useful for understanding dialectical materialism, specifically the version that was described and sanctioned during the long Stalin years. Certainly this is a simpler formation than the ones Leont'ev and Luria may have been using, but it supplies the baseline orthodoxy against which applications of dialectical materialism would be judged. If you're interested in a well formulated, critical theoretical argument, this book may not be for you. But if you're trying to understand the atmosphere and assumptions of the Soviet Union, pick it up. 

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