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Dialectical Materialism: Explains Everything And Nothing Simultaneously – OpEd

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Dialectic! What a powerful concept that explains everything and nothing at the same time in the Soviet reality. Any changes in the economic, social, foreign, or military policies of the Soviet Union were considered in their natural movement and rationalized by the materialist dialectic. For example, the introduction of the New Economic Policy (NEP) after War Communism was dialectic; the conclusion of the Non-Aggression Pact with Nazi Germany after many years of mutual dislike and criticism was dialectic; even the chronic lag of the Soviet economy in providing essential goods also found dialectical justification.

Materialistic dialectics was the main and universal method used in philosophy, science and even in everyday life. As an anecdote, I remember how I managed to avoid a bad mark on Marxism-Leninism when the instructor questioned me, “Why did not you outline some of Lenin’s works?” I replied that I could explain it dialectically. And I answered that the teachings of Marx-Lenin are eternal, but a soccer match between my favorite team and its principal rival is a temporary event. Thus, I can study the works of classics later but will miss the principal rivalry of the season forever. However, positive emotions from my team’s victory will help me in exploring the subject with even greater enthusiasm. Of course, there was little dialectic in my answer; instead, the instructor and I were rooting for the same team—plus, he appreciated the wit.

What is dialectic, anyway? Is materialistic dialectics a universal tool for understanding nature and society?

Dialectic has a long history and different interpretations. Still, we will rely on Hegel’s version as he authored three laws of dialectic: the unity and conflict of opposites, the mutual transformation of quantity into quality, and the negation of the negation. He suggested a path of arriving at the truth that has a triadic structure: a particular phenomenon (thesis) is manifested within its contradictory aspect (antithesis), which requires a resolution (synthesis) that negates their logical opposition. Concerning one of the main questions of philosophy—what is primary, matter or idea?—Hegel was a representative of idealism, and his philosophy was better described as dialectical idealism. On the contrary, Marx was an adherent of materialism, and his disagreement with Hegel’s idealism had to be resolved dialectically. In other words, Hegel’s idealism could be considered the thesis, and Marx’s materialism, which he borrowed from Feuerbach, was the antithesis. As a result of the third stage of the triad—synthesis—the birth of a new thesis was expected, since it is assumed that synthesis will resolve the contradiction and lead to the creation of a new paradigm. 

However, Marx was unable to apply the third component of dialectic, since the result turned out to be the same materialism. Ludwig von Mises in Theory & History stated that “No compromise is possible between this Hegelian idealism and any kind of materialism.” The history of philosophical thoughts shows that attempts to reconcile between idealism and materialism have already been undertaken, for example, by some schools of dualism, and will continue in the future. But the crux of the issue is that Marx did not synthesize at all. He stopped at the stage of antithesis, borrowed the Hegelian dialectic, and called it a new philosophical concept. Paradoxically, it turns out that dialectical materialism is a product of the misuse of the dialectical method itself. 

Mises also noticed that Marxian materialism was not correctly put forward as antithesis because “his doctrine does not deal at all with the mind-body problem.” He pointed out that Marxian materialism failed to explain how definite thoughts and judgments of value originate in the human mind. Moreover, it is not clear how the bourgeois environment from which Marx and Engels developed influenced the emergence of proletarian revolutionary thoughts in their heads because the being determines consciousness, according to their own doctrine.

Mises suggested that Marx decided to elaborate on the Hegelian dialectic because of Hegelianism’s prestige in Germany and was afraid to deviate from it radically. Without questioning Mises’s implication, it should be added that the concept of resolving the conflict between opposites and finding the truth in this way also fitted well with the ideological convoy of Marx and Engels. Do not forget that Marx was, first of all, a communist-revolutionary, and then a philosopher. As a revolutionary, he was looking for a scientific basis for the idea of ​​social conflict as the destructive force of capitalism. He mechanically transferred the dialectical method of cognition of truth and turned it into a theory of conflict that governed the historical process.

In general, many parties can participate in a conflict, but Marx preferred to limit himself to the realm of dichotomy, according to the dialectical law of the unity and conflict of opposites. In a capitalist society, he saw two opposing sides—the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. Mises repeatedly stated that the classification of the members of a capitalistic society according to their position in the social division of labor was unwarranted and made sense only in the framework of Marxism itself but not outside of his teachings. But even if we accept the Marxist classification, one may ask why the doctrine did not address peasants, who constituted a significant section of the populations of Germany and England during the time of Marx, and of course, the so-called petty bourgeoisie. 

Marx abstracted himself from the uncomfortable strata of the population that did not fit very well into his theory of scientific socialism. Instead, he hypothesized that the poor would get poorer and the rich richer, which, at the limit, will lead to all the wealth being concentrated in the hands of a few, and the majority will be the poor proletariat. That is, all the peasants will lose their land and become farm laborers, and the petty bourgeoisie will also cease to exist. Mathematicians have a method in which a function’s behavior is investigated in the limit, but studying society is not math, and such operations are unscientific. 

Ultimately, Marxism did not describe sociological relations in their full diversity. Moreover, Marx’s notion of class struggle breaks down literally when dealing with self-employed members of the capitalist society. The self-employed stratum of society is the backbone of capitalism — not the big bourgeoisie. Self-employed people are endowed with all the traits of individualism — autonomy, mature self-responsibility, and uniqueness, making them the original market participants. Meanwhile, the big bourgeoisie is just a super-positive result of market competition, for some groups of people. Marx did not see or understand this essence of the economic structure of capitalism.

A self-employed individual or small family-owned business exhibits a profound dualism that leads to the logical collapse of Marx’s theoretical provisions. The duality is present in the fact that the self-employed individual is both a toiler and entrepreneur. As an entrepreneur, she/he is exploited with even more severity than a prominent capitalist. Their other hypostasis — a toiler – cannot be unionized, cannot go on strike, usually works much more than eight hours per day, and does not have statutory breaks or vacations. This has to be the most exploited and disenfranchised toiler of a capitalist society. However, Marx turned a blind eye to these characteristics of the self-employed members of society and predicted that they would disappear from the face of the earth.

The self-employed person would be a tremendous didactic example of dialectic because it includes inner contradiction and unity. It would be interesting to know how these contradictions would behave at the stage of synthesis and what we would see as a result. Should the fundamental dualism and perpetual class-struggle against himself lead to the complete annihilation of him as a class? Marx failed to carry out such scientific research utilizing dialectic. Instead, Marx exposed the petty bourgeoisie to external factors that would wash away their wealth and turn them into a proletariat. Marxism did not predict or envision that self-employment would flourish during capitalism development. Instead of disappearing, petty bourgeoisies became the basis of the growing middle class, which did not have any place in the Marxian theory. The notion of exploitation of oneself is an absurd and logical dead-end, as well as evidence of erroneousness of Marxian class division and the idea of class struggle. 

Dialectic does not determine the number of iterations of the triad “thesis-antithesis-synthesis” firmly to reach the truth and is equal to infinity by default. At the same time, Marxism implicitly assumes that the last iteration will occur during the transition to communism. Then dialectic will be inapplicable because there will no longer be class contradictions in a utopian paradise. Paradoxically, materialist dialectic will negate itself.

The use of dialectic within the framework of dialectical materialism organically and entirely falls under the criticism of dialectic as a method of scientific knowledge. That is, Marx did a disservice to the Hegelian dialectic. Very often, dialectic is accused of the fact that the synthesis phase is subjective and is determined not only by the material of the thesis and antithesis but also by the minds that defend it. Besides, anything can follow from the contradiction, and there is no scientific method that would govern the synthesis. Thus, Marx decided pretty arbitrarily that the proletariat will be a winner in the class struggle in the long run.

Marxism includes a significant set of concepts that have been refuted by economists, historians, and philosophers, such as the labor theory of value, labor as a commodity, theory of value and surplus-value, and dialectical materialism itself. So, who in their right mind can regard Marxism as a science or philosophy? Returning to the beginning of the article, I would like to reiterate that Marx’s scientific negligence and the discrepancy between the real-life and the teaching was vivid for everyone in the Soviet Union who wanted to see it. The word dialectic became a subject of jokes and ridicule as it was perceived to explain everything and nothing simultaneously. It served as a concept behind which falsehood and wishful thinking were concealed.

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Allen Gindler

Allen Gindler is a scholar from the former U.S.S.R., specializing in Political Economy, Econometrics, and Industrial Engineering. Gindler is a supporter of the market economy and especially its interpretation by the Austrian School of Economics. He taught Economic Cybernetics, Standard Data Systems, and Computer-Aided Work Design at the Khmelnytskyi National University, Ukraine. Gindler is currently a private consultant to the IT industry on Database Administration and Cryptography. As a hobby, he is interested in political philosophy, history, population genetics, and Biblical archaeology and has published articles and opinion pieces in Mises Wire, American Thinker, Foundation for Economic Education, and Biblical Archaeology Review.

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