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Understanding change: what is the dialectic?

The movements for change around the globe – from the Arab Spring to the European Winter and the Occupy protests –  have been inspiring for socialists like me. They raise important questions. Why now? What are the drivers? What is the way forward?

Understanding the dialectic helps us answer those questions.

There is one caveat. Any discussion of the dialectic and understanding change on a blog like this must of necessity be brief and perhaps bowdlerised.

If I have sparked interest in this topic then let me suggest to readers they look at John Rees’ magnificent book The Algebra of Revolution: The Dialectic and the Classical Marxist Tradition for both a readable and informative discussion of the ideas.

There are three principles we need to look at – totality, change, and contradiction. You cannot however just look at these principles in isolation. They are part of the whole.

To understand that whole we must look at each of the parts within it, not in a mechanical and reductionist way but in a way that brings to life each component and recognises their existence as part of a wider reality and as shaped by and influencing that reality.

The 99% if you like can only be understood in terms of the totality – the 100%- and the relationship of the 99% to the one percent.

Of course the 99% is defined by what it is opposed to – the one percent. Yet that description hides major differences within the 99%, in particular the class divisions such a movement contains. 

It was a similar situation in the Arab Spring with for example the movement against Mubarak uniting various groups in society in Egypt, groups whose unity has disappeared now that they have achieved their one unifying goal. In terms put by the Revolutionary Socialists of Egypt a second revolution is now needed, a revolution of workers and peasants as workers and peasants.  The international and Egyptian bourgeoisie and armed forces might feel less enamoured of such a view.

As John Rees puts it ‘totality refers to the insistence that the various seemingly separate elements of which the world is composed are in fact related to one another.’ He goes on to say that ‘poverty and crime, unemployment and suicide, art and business, language and history, engineering and sociology cannot be understood in isolation, but only as part of a totality.’

But in looking at the part in this light, its meaning is transformed from something separate to something that can only be understood by its relationship with the other parts and the totality, the whole.

This totality is not static. As Rees explains totality is a process of change. Now some non-dialectical approaches recognise this too, but see the process of change as leading to the restoration of equilibrium once the roadblocks to say the market – unions, ‘high’ wages, government regulation – are removed.

On the other hand, as Rees puts it, ‘change, development, instability… are the very conditions for which a dialectical approach is designed to account.’ Engels says this in talking about the Hegelian system:

For the first time 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.

To understand the changes that occur we must look within the totality, to the contradictions between elements within the whole. As Rees says “If change is internally generated, it must be a result of contradiction, of instability and development as inherent properties of the system itself.’

For Marxists the contradiction between the classes – their systemic different interests – leads to class conflict and ultimately the negation of the system itself, with a new society emerging. That is not deterministic; rather it recognises a process of inherent and systemic change going out without a predetermined outcome.

It is this constant change driven by contradictions within the whole that is the dialectic. Rees again: ‘This then is the general form of the dialectic: it is an internally contradictory totality in a constant process of change.’ 

But this is a process that for Marxists has at its centre the organisation of production and the working class.  This is what makes it  a materialist dialectic in our hands.

In discussion of the dialectic you will often hear phases like the unity of opposites, turning quantity into quality and the negation of the negation. These are examples of the dialectical process at work.

The unity of opposites is  a way of describing contradiction. Capitalists and workers are opposites within the system’s totality. They are defined by their constantly changing relationship to each other. In this sense they are dependent on each other. The struggle between them is capitalist society.

What about quantity into quality? Change occurs gradually to balance the contradictions, but suddenly these gradual changes lead to rapid and complete change. Water being heated to boil is one descriptive example from the natural world that might help us understand this idea.  

Strikes over economic demands in one factory may inspire strikes in other workplaces and as the strikes spread the demands move from the economic to the political. The strikes over typesetting rates that began the February Revolution in 1917 in Russia are an example of quantity into quality.

The negation of the negation explains how the old is embodied in the new but in ways that yield a new reality. For example the downfall of feudalism saw a totally new society develop. Similarly if it occurs the battle between workers and capitalists can produce a new society – the negation of capitalism – that is based on that system’s productive forces but fundamentally different to it.

In a later article I’ll try to explain this dialectical approach by looking at the Occupy movement in Australia.



Comment from Shane H
Time November 9, 2011 at 10:06 am

Hi John

Hope all is well.

Quick question on this why do writers in the classical Marxist tradition refer to ‘THE’ dialectic. I always think this conjures up the notion of ‘THE dialectic’ as a thing that determines what is happening. Doubly ironic since the intention of this way of thinking is almost the opposite. It was certainly used in the Russian ‘textbooks’ this way with the Dialectic – like a demiurge demanding this or that course of action.

I have tried to get into Ree’s book but find it hard going inasmuch as you get the feeling that the answers are all given in advance – and anyone who uses the thesis/anti-thesis/sysnthesis thing to explain Hegel is really cutting corners.

I guess I see dialectic ways of thinking (ie treating reality as a process not a collection of individual things) as a very old way of thinking about the world – with its roots in tribal societies.

I first learned about dialectical ways of thinking from Bertell Ollman and what he calls a ‘philosophy of internal relations’ in which ‘things’ are what they are because of the social relations around them.

Comment from John
Time November 9, 2011 at 10:32 am

Shane. Thanks. I agree. Your comments are very insightful.

Th idea that you put, that dialectic ways of thinking are about treating reality as a process not a collection of individual things, is one I agree with strongly. I hope that comes through too from the article. As you say, following on from Bertell Ollman ‘things’ are what they are because of the social relations around them. But even that is I suspect too much counterposing part and other. But it gets the idea across.

The idea of ‘the’ dialectic is now just part of the social and intellectual and political furniture and so comes with the territory. I prefer dialectical thinking in the materialist tradition. Not sure about your comment about Rees and Hegel. if I get a chance I’ll re-read what John said.

Comment from juanR
Time November 9, 2011 at 12:40 pm

Sorry John et all, but whilst we are here discussing the meaning of dialectics, the American, Israelis and British are preparing to bomb the shit out of Iran!
Stop All Wars Now (before they start)