George Novack writing as “William F. Warde”

Elements of Dialectical Materialism

Written: August, 1940
First Published: Fourth International, Volume I, No. 4, August 1940, 8/40, pp. 108-111.
Transcription/Editing: 2005 by Daniel Gaido
HTML Markup: 2005 by David Walters
Public Domain: George Novack Internet Archive 2005; This work is completely free. In any reproduction, we ask that you cite this Internet address and the publishing information above.

Marxism is the scientific theory of the revolutionary proletarian movement which aims to overthrow the outlived capitalist system and erect a new socialist order in its stead. Dialectical materialism is the philosophical foundation of Marxism.

The Scope of Dialectical Materialism

Many times in the history of the labor movement capitalist spokesmen have sought to confine the activities of the workers within narrow limits. Workers are advised to restrict their activities to a particular plant or industry or within the boundaries of one country. Labor organizations are warned against entering politics, and, once they do become an independent force in political life, are cautioned against seizing state power on their own account. These “No Trespassing” signs are put up for one purpose: to keep the workers from invading these privileged precincts so that reactionary forces can enjoy their undisputed possession.

We encounter an analogous phenomenon in intellectual life. Here the outright bourgeois enemies of Marxism strive to constrict revolutionary Socialist thought within the narrowest limits: the domain of the human mind. Marxism, they assert, is false; dialectical materialism is an intellectual absurdity. The petty-bourgeois revisers of Marxism, not so bold or consistent in their opposition, seek to circumscribe its application in another way. Marxism, they say, is half-true, or true of only half the world. It applies to social phenomena but has no relevance to purely physical phenomena. The theory of dialectical materialism is a relic of religion or of Hegelian idealism. Both schools of criticism, the bourgeois and petty-bourgeois, agree in excluding dialectical materialism from nature.

Dialectical materialism admits no such barriers to its field of operations. It has a universal character. It takes all reality for its province. The materialist dialectics applies to all phenomena from the most distant nebulae and the most remote time to man’s most intimate feelings and elevated thoughts.

Just as the revolutionary proletariat aims to conquer the earth for socialism, so dialectical materialism, which is the philosophical expression of that movement, seeks to extend its sway over all departments of knowledge, contesting the right of rival ideologies to rule over them. It is a militant, uncompromisingly critical, revolutionary philosophy, which aims to refashion the old world of thought as radically as the revolutionary proletariat aspires to reconstruct the existing social order.

The Unity of Marxism

Marxism must repel every attempt to limit the scope of its application because it is a monistic view of the universe. Dualistic and pluralistic philosophies split reality into radically different categories of being, absolutely opposed one to the others. Mind is set up against matter; the individual against society, society against nature. Theories based upon the absolute disjunction and opposition of the various aspects of reality suffer from incurable contradictions. The inherent disunity in their conceptions of the world cannot be overcome.

Dialectical materialism, however, regards reality as a single historical process of material development. This process is unified by its material constitution and connections. At the same time this material universe has become quantitatively and qualitatively diversified in the course of its evolution so that individual segments and aspects can be distinguished and dealt with as separate units. But however isolated they may be, these subdivisions of existence continue to maintain essential relations with one another and with the historical process as a whole.

Accordingly, dialectical materialism cannot recognize any absolute cleavages between the component parts of the universe. Nature, society, and the human mind are three qualitatively different yet organically related creations and constituents of the one historical process. Nature is the primary product of material evolution; society developed out of nature and consciousness out of society.

The theory of dialectical materialism exhibits the same inner unity, organic interconnections, and systematic character as the various subdivisions of material reality it represents in thought. Its ideas have been derived from a comprehensive study of natural, social and intellectual processes and relations.

The basic conceptions of dialectical materialism have in the first place been taken from nature, not arbitrarily imposed upon it, as malicious critics insist. They have been extracted from nature according to the best methods of scientific thought and models of scientific practice. These ideas reflect processes, forces, and relations which actually exist and operate in objective reality before they have been formulated by dialectic thought, as radium is present and active in pitch blende ore before its extraction in pure form by smelting. These principles are subsequently employed for the further investigation of natural phenomena and for human welfare as x-rays are used for experimental purposes in laboratories or for treating certain kinds of disease.

Although differing from the rest of nature in important respects, human society is an intrinsic part of the material world, an extension and off-spring of it. Historical materialism results from the application of the laws of dialectical materialism to this particular portion of material reality, human society in its manifold processes of development. It is a special form of the more general theory, just as society is a special form of material existence.

The same general laws that govern the myriad modes of motion and transformation in nature also hold for that part of the material world composed of associated human beings which we call society. But human society has, in addition to the natural laws which it shares in common with other material formations, its own special laws of development, which had to be discovered before mankind could obtain a scientific knowledge of society. In the theory and method of historical materialism Marx gave to the world for the first time the key to an understanding of the laws governing the evolution of society.

Just as every phase in the evolution of nature up to and including its highest product, associated humanity, has its own specific laws of development, so each stage in the evolution of society on this planet has had its own kind of material organization and special laws of development. Scientific Socialism is the fruit of the application of historical materialism to capitalism and its transition into the next higher stage, the socialist organization of society. Each of these three divisions of the Marxist system reflects a particular portion of reality in its process of historical realization. Dialectical materialism covers the universe at large, historical materialism human society, and scientific socialism human society in its present and prospective phase of existence.

These three parts of Marxist theory unfold one out of the other, the specific from the general, the concrete from the abstract. They are so organically interlinked that they cannot really be disjoined, although they may be considered separately for purposes of thought.

In addition to nature and society, reality has a third dimension, human consciousness. Consciousness arises in the human species on the threshold of its emergence from the animal state as an expression and expansion of social life. Men began to conceive ideas about their activities and environment in conjunction with the production of the material means of their social existence. Each subsequent stage of social development has had an intellectual organization, forms of consciousness, and methods of thought corresponding to its productive powers and material level. The higher the level of social development, the greater has been the comprehension of reality since each successive step in the progress of human knowledge is based upon the material and intellectual acquisitions of its predecessors.

As the scientific system of the Socialist movement, the most advanced tendency of historical development, Marxism has reached new heights in the understanding of intellectual as well as natural and social processes. It has created a distinctive theory of the nature and activities of mental life, its own method of thought, its individual logic. The Marxist method of thought is the materialist dialectics. The dialectical method of reasoning about material reality is the highest form of conscious thought.

The coherence of Marxist theory is rooted in the material unity of the historical process. The general laws of development of this process constitute the content of the materialist dialectics. The materialist dialectics is not only an instrument for analyzing thought but also for probing to the depths social and natural phenomena. So far, its greatest achievements have been in the sphere of sociology but, properly employed, the dialectical materialist method can be of immense aid to scientific investigation in all fields of knowledge.

The Materialist Basis of Marxism

Marxist thought is first of all materialist. It conceives the universe in all its manifestations to consist of matter in motion. Matter should not be pictured as inert, characterless, and leaden, as it is often misrepresented by opponents of materialism. On the contrary, material substance has been found to be electrically energetic, infinitely plastic, and, in organic beings, can even become sensitive, alive and intelligent.

Matter in the course of its development has assumed the most diverse forms. A light-ray and a louse, a dream and a solar system are all manifestations of material existence. The modes of material motion are as endlessly varied as its actual and potential formations. The network of electronic pulsations in the subatomic world, the rush of the planets through space, the migrations of animals, the activities of society, and the intricate circuits of the human nervous system and brain are all combinations of material motion in a lower or higher degree of development.

The properties of matter are limitless, and new ones are constantly being brought forth. Electromagnetism, which is today regarded as the fundamental form of material energy and is rapidly becoming the main motive force of modern technology, has been discovered, investigated, and put to practical use only in the past century. Many modes of its activity remain obscure or unknown. What further powers and properties material reality holds within itself, hidden from our perception, we cannot even guess.

The physical world existed before the appearance of mankind or any living being on this earth. It maintains itself independently of man’s existence, perception, or thought. Neither God nor mankind created the world; the world gave birth to man and man created the idea of God.

The Materialist Theory of Knowledge

If, as materialism holds, everything in the universe consists of matter in motion, then the human mind must likewise be a material phenomenon. Dialectical materialism does not shrink from this conclusion but wholeheartedly embraces it. In agreement with the practice of modern science, it looks upon the mind as a natural outgrowth and the highest product of universal evolution.

The individual sciences from astronomy to social psychology study the main links in the chain of material development which has culminated in the emergence of human intelligence. Aside from the abundant evidence of scientific research, the material origins of the psychic powers can be observed in the growth of every human being from a sperm cell completely absorbed within the maternal womb to independent existence and intelligent control of its bodily activities. The life-cycle of the individual reproduces in a condensed version the historical evolution of the species.

If the collective intelligence of mankind has developed out of nature and society, the mind of the individual does not and cannot exist except as a function of his brain and his body. The gradual growth of intelligence, the effects of lack of food, narcotics, or a hard blow on the head upon one’s own consciousness, the disappearance of intelligence at death testify to the dependence of mind upon its material bases.

Mental functioning is a thoroughly natural organic process. The operations of the human mind, remembering, dreaming, learning, reasoning, speaking, etc., have the same material character as such functions of the digestive apparatus as swallowing, chewing, digesting and excreting. Many schools of thought make a mystery of the mind, treating it as some supernatural power. Although the activities of the thought process have their special features and peculiar laws which can be uncovered only through direct analysis, they are in themselves no more enigmatic than other kinds of organic behavior. Human beings think as spontaneously as they work, eat and reproduce themselves. Through the brain and nervous system the mind is connected with the body, through the body with society, and through society with the rest of nature. These spheres of existence provide the mind with the materials and motives for its activities just as they furnish the stomach with the food for its assimilation. Every human mind remains permanently anchored to these material foundations. The most extravagant speculations of thought, the wildest dreams, the most refined ideas cannot transcend the boundaries of material suggestion nor find any sources of material for its productions outside of those given by the material forms and forces which encompass man on all sides. Nature is the mother of all things and all ideas, and to it they eventually return.

From this materialist standpoint, it is not difficult to solve the problem which has vexed so many thinkers and led to many wrong and fanciful notions: “How can we know the world around us?” The materialist immediately replies to the skeptical philosopher who doubts our ability to know the external world: “Why should we not be able to know it?” We have come out of the womb of this world; we are made of the same stuff; we remain part of it throughout life; and dissolve into it at death. Is it more extraordinary for the human mind to reflect the surrounding world than for the sea to reflect the sky? If a body can move through space, why cannot the mind actively penetrate reality? If the human hand can grasp objects and man-made tools can reshape them, why cannot the human mind also grasp and remold objects?

In fact, mental activity transforms physical sensations into particular ideas and systems of thought just as physical labor converts sugar-cane into pure sugar. The mind, one kind of organic energy, absorbs and alters its materials like any other natural agency into something bearing its own stamp and characteristic of its own mode of production.

Of course, human reflection, intellectual penetration and philosophical conception are far more complex and highly developed modes of organic functioning than the simpler natural and social processes cited above. But to the materialist, to the scientific thinker, there are no impassable barriers between these various categories of phenomena. All illustrate the capacity of one part and process of nature to react to and act upon another, to represent and to transform it, to separate, to recombine and to express its essential qualities.

The second riddle propounded by the skeptics: “How can the mind know the truth about the external world?” can be solved along the same lines. People did not begin to reason, nor do they continue to reason, for the pure pleasure of thinking. Men think for practical purposes, in order to act properly and attain their ends. Man’s intellectual capacities; ideas, and philosophies have developed along with and out of man’s social struggle against nature and his growing mastery over it. If their thought did not more or less correctly represent objective reality, if it did not help them to function more efficiently, if it did not force nature to serve man’s ends and thus satisfy his vital needs, men would long since have ceased to cultivate their mental powers. These would have withered away or diminished in importance like the caudal appendage or the sense of smell.

The test of man’s ability to know the external world truly is to be found in practice. Despite setbacks and stagnation, man’s intellectual comprehension of the world has steadily increased together with his practical mastery over nature. Every improvement in man’s material circumstances and powers of production has been accompanied by an advance in his mental capacities. Since we cannot see any insuperable limits to the material productive powers of society, we cannot set any limitations upon the progress of the intellectual powers of mankind.

There is an interesting illustration of this fact in Anti-Duehring.There Engels expresses doubt whether the subatomic world can ever be directly explored and known owing to the interference of light-rays. Recently, however, scientists have devised the electronic microscope which avoids light-ray interference and enables physicists to penetrate far more deeply into the constitution of matter than had been thought possible only a few years ago.

Materialism Versus Idealism

The question of the relations between mind and matter has divided philosophers into two main schools of thought. The materialists view matter as the primary reality, regarding sensation, consciousness, and reasoning as secondary and derivative qualities. The idealists have a totally different conception of their mutual relations. If it is admitted to exist at all, matter is considered an inferior, degraded form of existence deriving from and dependent upon mind, or God, the author of mind.

The materialist theory of knowledge and of the nature of mind conflicts with the idealist outlook at every important point. Where the materialist states that mind is a product of natural evolution, the idealist asserts or implies that it possesses some sort of supernatural power. This power, according to the idealist Plato, emanated from the mind’s access to a realm of pre-existing eternal ideas; according to Christian philosophy it comes from divine sources.

The materialist looks upon mental operations as functions and forms of organic behavior. Idealism segregates reason from the rest of human activity and endows it with a unique status and categorically different powers. Thanks to mysterious transcendental powers of intuition or revelation, idealism declares that the mind has insight into special realms of being, apart from the gross material world and inaccessible to ordinary people. This takes its crassest form in the belief in communication with the souls of departed mortals or with ghosts. It assumes religious form in the belief that superior individuals or favored members of religious sects, prophets, mystics, saints, priests and popes, can communicate with God.

Where idealism doubts or denies man’s ability to know the external world or to know its innermost characteristics, materialism holds fast to the unshakeable conviction, confirmed by the intellectual progress of humanity, by scientific knowledge, and by everyday experience, that the world around us is subject to intellectual penetration and comprehension in ever-increasing measure. Where idealism circumscribes man’s knowledge, materialism sees the way clear to its advance. However imperfect, partial, and approximate our ideas of reality must necessarily be at any given time, materialism, unlike religious or idealist theories of knowledge, refuses to idolize and prostrate itself before man’s present ignorance. Our knowledge of nature, of society, and of ourselves has absolutely increased under our eyes. Far from being near the end of its intellectual acquisitions and powers, mankind is today only at the beginning.

It has often been objected that, since the mind conceives many things not to be found in reality, mind must be essentially different from the rest of reality. A false conclusion has here been drawn from a correct fact. The fact that one portion of material reality, the mind, possesses properties and products not to be found elsewhere is not peculiar to the mind. It is a universal feature of reality. Just as there is much in the mind that cannot be and will never be present in other parts of nature, so there is much in the rest of nature that has not yet and never will be possessed by the mind. Humanity’s imagination is still surpassed by its ignorance.