Was Marx a Dialectical Materialist?

Was Marx a Dialectical Materialist?

As strange as the question in the title sounds given the obvious answer, it is the opinion of some “leftists”, especially anarchists and some left-communists, that “dialectical materialism” is a made up “political ideology,” dreamt up by Stalin to justify the supposed atrocities of the Soviet Union. Even someone as well-read as Noam Chomsky is shaky on this, to say the least.

From Understanding Power:

Dialectics is one that I’ve never understood, actually—I’ve just never understood what the word means. Marx doesn’t use it, incidentally, it’s used by Engels. And if anybody can tell me what it is, I’ll be happy. I mean, I’ve read all kinds of things which talk about “dialectics”—I haven’t the foggiest idea what it is. It seems to mean something about complexity, or alternative positions, or change, or something. I don’t know.

The implications of the second sentence is that Marx did not use the dialectical method and it was, in all likelihood, a forgery of Engels which he later stamped on Marxism. In fact, that is precisely what Chomsky says in the footnotes. He cites Shlomo Avineri, saying that much of what is considered “Marxist materialism was not written by Marx but Engels.” Further, that much of it was written after Marx’s death and that Marx himself never used the terms “dialectical materialism” or “historical materialism.”

It is true that much of what is considered Marxist materialism was in fact written by Engels. For a long period of time, Marx was occupied with writing Capital and the required studies that went along with it. To establish scientific socialism, it was necessary to lay the foundations for a scientific critic of capitalist economy. There wasn’t much time to tinker the details of dialectical and historical materialist analysis. The task of explaining the details of theory fell to Engels (see Anti-Dühring) This is not to say that Marx never used the dialectical method or never wrote about philosophy — far from it. Marx’s writings abound with the dialectical materialist analysis. From the afterword to the second German edition of Capital, we get:

My dialectic method is not only different from the Hegelian, but is its direct opposite. To Hegel, the life process of the human brain, i.e., the process of thinking, which, under the name of “the Idea,” he even transforms into an independent subject, is the demiurgos of the real world, and the real world is only the external, phenomenal form of “the Idea.” With me, on the contrary, the ideal is nothing else than the material world reflected by the human mind, and translated into forms of thought.

With Hegel, the dialectical method was clouded in an idealist hue. With Marx, it was its “direct opposite” since Marx based his analysis on the material world rather than an ideal one. It’s true that Marx never used the terms “dialectical materialism” directly but oh I wonder, what one would call a method that was dialectical and materialist! Only if we had someone of Chomsky’s linguistic caliber to decipher this most difficult riddle.

Capital alone is flooded with Marx using the dialectical method. In one instance, Marx writes about how not every sum of money can be transformed into capital but that a minimum amount is “presupposed in the hands of the individual possessor,” after passing which threshold, the money can be transformed into capital — a change in quantity leading to a change in quality.

The possessor of money or commodities actually turns into a capitalist in such cases only where the minimum sum advanced for production greatly exceeds the maximum of the middle ages. Here, as in natural science, is shown the correctness of the law discovered by Hegel (in his “Logic”), that merely quantitative differences beyond a certain point pass into qualitative changes.

That this qualitative leap is dialectics in action and Marx using the dialectical materialist method is perhaps only understandable by someone who has a rudimentary understanding of dialectics. Given that Chomsky is self-admittedly not well versed in dialectics, it is understandable why it must have escaped him. However, to announce later that “Marx doesn’t use it” when he clearly does is intellectually dishonest.

With Engels, the dialectical method is found not only in his method of analysis but also more explicitly. Take Anti-Dühring for example. Engels wrote to Marx about the monumental work that it was an attempt “to produce an encyclopaedic survey of our conception of the philosophical, natural-science and historical problems.” Throughout the whole work, Engels defends the dialectical and historical materialist method against Herr Dühring’s criticisms. Marx had complete knowledge of this work of Engels. In fact, it was decided by both of them to produce this work in order to criticize Dühring’s writings, which were taking hold with a section of the socialists. Was Marx forced by Engels not to say anything about dialectics while Engels supposedly made up things about their conception of the world that Marx didn’t agree with?

Now take the famous line from The Communist Manifesto: “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” What is this but a concise summary of the historical materialist method being used by Marx? Perhaps Chomsky will one day be able to decipher for us.


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