For the June 2023 session of Red Start, I led a discussion of four short readings on dialectics, a foundational Marxist philosophical concept. Together the readings provide an introduction to the basic ideas of the dialectical method, and touch a bit on its application to the natural world and to social organization.
The Basics of The Dialectical Method
1. Everything changes. Rather than operating through fixed essences and static identities, dialectics posits that the world is best seen as constantly in flux. This applies to people and things, reminding us that people can change through processes of development. It also applies more broadly, asserting that capitalism developed out of prior modes of production and must also pass on into some future order.
2. Change is caused by contradictions. Struggle between internal contradictions in a thing are the basis of change, and external conditions are the conditions of change. As Mao puts it: “in a suitable temperature an egg changes into a chicken, but no temperature can change a stone into a chicken, because each has a different basis.” Marxism applies this law by arguing that communist society must emerge out of contradictions and struggles within capitalist society itself, not from independent ideas formulated by brilliant thinkers.
3. Change is not smooth and steady. Dialectics asserts that change happens through qualitative leaps once the internal contradictions in a thing reach quantitative thresholds. At the societal level, this means that change often bursts through in revolutionary activity to supplant one mode of production with another.
4. Everything is connected. Dialectics asserts that all “things” are best seen as connected and dependent upon one another. The social role of capitalist is only defined in contradiction to the laborer that is the source of value production appropriated by the capitalist. Conversely, the social role of laborer is only defined in contradiction to means of production possessed not by themselves, but by the capitalist who appropriates their labor.
Applications of the Dialectical Method
Marx’s Second Afterword to the German Edition of “Capital” details the relation between Hegel’s conception of dialectics and his own. Marx departs from Hegel in arguing that contradiction exists not in the realm of thought or idea, but in material life. Hegel’s dialectic asserts development as a process of refinement of “the Idea” towards ever higher forms of enlightenment, which serves to glorify the current state of things rather than advocate for their overthrow, as Marx does.
Friedrich Engels’ “Dialectics of Nature” contains a series of fragments on the application of the dialectical method to natural science. The text contains some interesting observations about the view of nature as in flux, and operating on the dialectical principles outlined above.
Finally, an excerpt from Mao Zedong’s “On Contradiction” outlines a practical application of the law of contradiction to social formations, outlining what he calls the “principal contradiction” within a thing. This is the contradiction that Mao argues is the broader basis of change within a thing, and generally determines all of its second-order contradictions. For example Marx identified a principal contradiction in capitalist society between wage labor and capital. In Chinese society, Mao argues that the principal contradiction has been shifting, as different phases of the struggle against imperialism and then within China in the Civil War took turns being the primary driver of development within Chinese society.
A full and exact formulation of a “principal contradiction” is never possible; it instead provides a political argument used to sway people towards particular courses of action.
For example, different caucuses and factions in DSA outline different principal contradictions within American and world capitalist society: U.S. imperialism and progressive social orders struggling under its boot, the fight against the slaveholder constitution to establish a democratic republic (often advanced by the Marxist Unity Group), or the fight against “the right and the center” that must be overcome before building a “self-conscious working-class majority” (per Socialist Majority Caucus’ 2022 Perspectives Document).
Understanding the principal contradiction within DSA itself can help us understand how to focus our efforts to transform it. For example, in our article “All the Rules of the Art: The Struggle for Good Governance in DSA,” Red Star argues that the principal contradiction within DSA, or at least its national organization, is “the contradiction between an outdated system and style of leadership and the emergence of a robust, rigorous socialist democratic culture.”
As we organize within DSA and as part of the socialist movement, the concept of dialectics can provide a blueprint for our struggle, and help us outline effective political methods for resolving issues within our organization and in broader class society.