Why Dialectics?

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By Mattie Stardust

“To become ‘ideologists of the working class’ (Lenin), ‘organic intellectuals’ of the proletariat (Gramsci), intellectuals have to carry out a radical revolution in their ideas: a long, painful and difficult re-education. An endless external and internal struggle.”

  • Louis Althusser, “Philosophy as a Revolutionary Weapon.” 1968


As Marxist-Leninists, and especially as young revolutionaries, we are faced with the daunting tasks of overthrowing the global rule of imperialist capitalism and ushering in the era of proletarian dictatorship.

History and current events indicate that the capitalist class will not relinquish its grip without a protracted and violent global uprising led by the oppressed. The brutal onslaught of racialized state violence in Standing Rock, across the Black Belt South and in hundreds of other cities across the U.S. and the world is a testament to the viciousness of capitalism backed into a corner, desperately trying to maintain its dominance under threat of popular uprising. Nothing short of global revolution will topple its rule.

Imperialist capitalist hegemony is not limited to the economic and military spheres, however, and neither must the struggle against it be confined to these realms. A philosophical struggle must also be waged, whereby the ideas of the bourgeoisie are uprooted and replaced with a revolutionary proletarian philosophy. Marxist dialectics is the means by which we achieve this.

To understand the dialectical method it is useful first to understand Cartesianism, the bourgeois counterpart to the dialectic. Cartesianism is based on the teachings of 17th century philosopher René Descartes, who described the world as being separated into two distinct categories: physical (the realm of the body) and the mental (the realm of the mind). For Descartes, the two categories never overlap. The body can exist without the mind, as can the mind without the body. To examine the world by the Cartesian method is to examine its physical and mental components separate from each other, in relative isolation. More generally, the Cartesian method can be applied to the study of any phenomenon: to study the parts individually, or in a vacuum, is to study the whole.

The dialectical method stands in direct opposition to this sort of thinking. According to the dialectical outlook, all things exist in a constant state of flux, continually interacting with, mutually transforming and redefining each other. J.V. Stalin writes,

Contrary to metaphysics, dialectics holds that nature is not a state of rest and immobility, stagnation and immutability, but a state of continuous movement and change, of continuous renewal and development, where something is always arising and developing, and something always disintegrating and dying away.”

In order to study a phenomenon, we must observe it in motion as it interacts the rest of the physical world, not in a snapshot, removed and sanitized of its environment.

One of the most ingenious and controversial applications of the dialectical method came in the form of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. Marx and Engels were early proponents of Darwin’s theory, and Leon Trotsky described it as “the highest triumph of the dialectic in the whole field of organic matter.” Life, according to Darwin, changes over time in response to changes in its particular environment. The environment is also changed in part by its living inhabitants. Life and the environment are thus engaged in a constant dance, forever mutually changing and determining each other. According to Darwin’s dialectical outlook, there is very little information to be gained from studying a species without also considering its environment. Likewise, there is very little information to be gained from a study of the environment without also considering its living inhabitants along with it. To know the hummingbird, one must also know the flower it feeds upon; and to know the flower, one must also know the hummingbird that pollinates it.

Darwin’s groundbreaking dialectical theory was naturally met with a barrage of hostility, criticism, and censorship form bourgeois circles, which were compelled come to the defense their newly-obsolete Cartesian narrative. The theory of evolution by natural selection effectively disproved the Cartesian account of Divine Creation, whereby God first created the world in perfect form, and then later populated it with its living inhabitants, already fully developed.

Far from confining itself to the annals of history, the dialectical method continues to upset the ruling class ideology at every turn. Those who profess the virtues of revolutionary socialism today are routinely met with a barrage of criticisms from bourgeois ideologues who claim that socialism could “never work,” because of some immutable “human nature.” Indeed, the “human nature” objection against socialism is a rather convenient position for the capitalist class to take. In the words of the Marxist feminist Silvia Federici, the Cartesian concept of human nature is employed as a tool by the ruling class to “eternalize their power over us.” Why try to change that which is divinely ordained?

By approaching the problem dialectically, we are able to see that even if there does exist a “human nature,” it must necessarily be constantly changing over time and by locality. It is not something that has been imposed on us from above, forever unchangeable; rather, it is something that is continually being created from moment to moment. Fidel Castro writes, “Throughout its evolution mankind [sic] has never had, nor ever could have had, a clear idea of its own existence, because it simply did not exist, it simply evolved at the same rate as everything else that existed.”  Behaviors that arise and find sanction under capitalism must not be mistaken for permanent or God-given fixtures of humanity. Instead, we should expect a suite of new behaviors and cultural norms — a new “human nature” — to arise along with the establishment of socialism and the liberation of human society.

Armed with a dialectical outlook, we are able to dispel other pieces of bourgeois sophistry and propaganda similarly employed to perpetuate the hegemony of capitalist imperialism. As the heroic uprisings against racist police occupation in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014, and in Baltimore, Md., in 2015 displayed, any attempt by the exploited and oppressed to rise up and break their chains are met with bourgeois pleas that protesters remain peaceful and not to break the law. Virtually every major media outlet carried editorials denouncing alleged rioting, looting and arson, and extolling the virtues of “changing the system from within.”

As dialecticians we reject the idea that the bourgeois legal system could ever function as an impartial arbiter of conflict between the oppressed and the State. The U.S. justice system was not created in a vacuum, removed from class and national struggle. It is a product of the class struggle; a weapon in the arsenal of the bourgeoisie used to perpetuate its subjugation of the proletariat. Our struggle cannot restrict itself to the narrow confines of bourgeois legality. Rather, our struggle must seek to dismantle the bourgeois legal system itself and erect in its place a proletarian state, defined and determined by working class interests.

The struggle against capitalist imperialism is indeed a monumental undertaking. No sphere of social and political life will remain untouched and unchanged by socialist revolution. As Marxist-Leninist youth, it is our unique responsibility to forge a new and radical path towards proletarian liberation and beyond, both in the streets and in our minds.

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