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Dialectics is the method of reasoning which aims to understand things concretely in all their movement, change and interconnection, with their opposite and contradictory sides in unity.
Dialectics is opposed to the formal, metaphysical mode of thought of ordinary understanding which begins with a fixed definition of a thing according to its various attributes. For example formal thought would explain: ‘a fish is something with no legs which lives in the water’.
Darwin however, considered fish dialectically: some of the animals living in the water were not fish, and some of the fish had legs, but it was the genesis of all the animals as part of a whole interconnected process which explained the nature of a fish: they came from something and are evolving into something else.
Darwin went behind the appearance of fish to get to their essence. For ordinary understanding there is no difference between the appearance of a thing and its essence, but for dialectics the form and content of something can be quite contradictory – parliamentary democracy being the prime example: democracy in form, but dictatorship in content.
And for dialectics, things can be contradictory not just in appearance, but in essence. For formal thinking, light must be either a wave or a particle; but the truth turned out to be dialectical – light is both wave and particle.
We are aware of countless ways of understanding the world; each of which makes the claim to be the absolute truth, which leads us to think that, after all, “It’s all relative!”. For dialectics the truth is the whole picture, of which each view is a more or less one-sided, partial aspect.
At times, people complain in frustration that they lack the Means to achieve their Ends, or alternatively, that they can justify their corrupt methods of work by the lofty aims they pursue. For dialectics, Means and Ends are a unity of opposites and in the final analysis, there can be no contradiction between means and ends – when the objective is rightly understood, "the material conditions [means] for its solution are already present or at least in the course of formation" (Marx, Preface of Contribution to a Political Economy)
An example of dialectical reasoning can be seen in Lenin's slogan: “All Power to the Soviets” spoken when the Soviets were against the Bolsheviks. Lenin understood, however, that the impasse could only be resolved by workers’ power. Since the Soviets were organs of workers’ power, a revolutionary initiative by the Bolsheviks would inevitably bring the Soviets to their side: the form of the Soviets during the time (lead by Mensheviks and SRs) were at odds with the content of the Soviets as Workers’, Peasants’ and Soldiers’ Councils.
Formal thinking often has trouble understanding the causes of events – something has to be a cause and something else the effect – and people are surprised when they irrigate land and 20 years later – due to salination of the land, silting of the waterways, etc – they have a desert! Dialectics on the other hand understands that cause and effect are just one and another side of a whole network of relations such as we have in an ecosystem, and one thing cannot be changed without changing the whole system.
These are different aspect of Dialectics, and there are many others, because dialectics is the method of thinking in which concepts are flexible and mobile, constrained only by the imperative of comprehending the movement of the object itself, however contradictory, however transient.
Dialectics has its origins in ancient society, both among the Chinese and the Greeks, where thinkers sought to understand Nature as a whole, and saw that everything is fluid, constantly changing, coming into being and passing away. It was only when the piecemeal method of observing Nature in bits and pieces, practiced in Western thinking in the 17th and 18th century, had accumulated enough positive knowledge for the interconnections, the transitions, the genesis of things to become comprehensible, that conditions became ripe for modern dialectics to make its appearance. It was Hegel who was able to sum up this picture of universal interconnection and mutability of things in a system of Logic which is the foundation of what we today call Dialectics.
As Engels put it:
“the whole world, natural, historical, intellectual, is represented as a process – i.e., as in constant motion, change, transformation, development; and the attempt is made to trace out the internal connection that makes a continuous whole of all this movement and development.” [Socialism: Utopian & Scientific]
It was in the decade after Hegel’s death – the 1840s – when Hegel’s popularity was at its peak in Germany, that Marx and Engels met and worked out the foundations of their critique of bourgeois society.
Hegel’s radical young followers had in their hands a powerful critical tool with which they ruthlessly criticised Christianity, the dominant doctrine of the day. However, one of these Young Hegelians, Ludwig Feuerbach, pointed out that Holy Family was after all only a Heavenly image of the Earthly family, and said that by criticising theology with philosophy, the Young Hegelians were only doing the same as the Christians – Hegel’s Absolute Idea was just another name for God! For Feuerbach, ideas were a reflection of the material world and he held it to be ridiculous that an Idea could determine the world. Feuerbach had declared himself a materialist.
Marx and Engels began as supporters of Feuerbach. However, very soon they took up an opposition to Feuerbach to restore the Hegelian dialectic which had been abandoned by Feuerbach, and to free it from the rigidity of the idealistic Hegelian system and place the method on a materialist basis:
“Hegel was an idealist. To him, the thoughts within his brain were not the more or less abstract pictures of actual things and processes, but, conversely, things and their evolution were only the realized pictures of the ‘Idea’, existing somewhere from eternity before the world was. This way of thinking turned everything upside down, and completely reversed the actual connection of things in the world. ” [Fredrick Engels, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific]
Thus, for Marx and Engels, thoughts were not passive and independent reflections of the material world, but products of human labour, and the contradictory nature of our thoughts had their origin in the contradictions within human society. This meant that Dialectics was not something imposed on to the world from outside which could be discovered by the activity of pure Reason, but was a product of human labour changing the world; its form was changed and developed by people, and could only be understood by the practical struggle to overcome these contradictions – not just in thought, but in practice.