What is Dialectical Materialism? Discuss

“Dialectical Materialism” is the official term used to describe the philosophical foundation of Marxist thought, although Karl Marx himself did not employ this specific phrase. It gained prominence during the Second International and became the official ideology of the USSR, where, under Stalin’s guidance, the extensive body of work by Marx and his followers underwent codification and transformation into a comprehensive framework known as Diamat. Stalin contributed to this effort with his own work titled “Dialectical and Historical Materialism” (1938), though doubts persist about his actual authorship of the text.

The essence of dialectical materialism lies in combining G.W.F. Hegel’s dialectical approach with the philosophical materialism championed by Ludwig Feuerbach, a figure within the ‘Young Hegelians’ group. Marx, following Feuerbach’s lead, aimed to create a secular version of Hegel’s dialectic of spirit. Marx distanced himself from Hegel’s idealism, famously claiming that he had put Hegel “back on his feet” by prioritizing matter over spirit. At its core, dialectical materialism asserts that the world exists independently of human perception and that reality, as the sole entity, takes precedence over the ideal, imaginary, and spiritual.

Friedrich Engels furthered this perspective by asserting that the world undergoes continuous revolutionary changes driven by internal contradictions. Engels articulated his viewpoint in three laws, drawn from both classical philosophical sources and Hegel’s philosophy. First, the world is composed of opposing elements that exist in both conflict and unity (for instance, day and night). Second, quantitative changes lead to qualitative “leaps” (as seen when water, a quantitative change, transforms into steam, a qualitative change, upon reaching 100°C). Third, change is a process of negation (such as a seed germinating into a plant, negating its previous state as a seed, and further negating that negation by becoming a plant).

Dialectical materialism has faced criticism from both within and outside of Marxism. Jürgen Habermas critiques it for resembling scientism, wherein it mistakes philosophy for a science. In contrast, Louis Althusser lauds it precisely because he believes it turns philosophy into a scientific endeavor. This highlights the ongoing debate surrounding the rigidity and programmatic nature of dialectical materialism.

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