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Thread: The materialist dialectic as "Mysticism"

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    Default The materialist dialectic as "Mysticism"

    For some reason I have often seen some small, but vocal groups of people deride the materialist dialectic as "Mysticism." I understand perfectly well what the dialectics is, but I would like to hear what the rest of you have to say about the materialist dialectic, sometimes known as "Dialectical Materialism." Worthless and irrelevant, or a critical component of Marxist analysis?

    My own personal view is that dialectics is not a critical component of Marxism, and that historical materialism supersedes it in terms of relevance and practical use.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Cicero View Post
    My own personal view is that dialectics is not a critical component of Marxism, and that historical materialism supersedes it in terms of relevance and practical use.
    This is true. The materialist conception of history is central to Marxism, while many Marxists reject dialectics in its entirety. We used to have a poster named Rosa Lichtenstein who wrote a lot on it. She's banned, but you could probably still find her posts.

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    What makes the dialectics part irrevelent?

    Serious question btw
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    Historical materialism is, itself, dialectical. Dialectical materialism is an attempt to explain the general laws of motion of matter and so is not, in itself, mystical. That's not to say that it might not be wrong, however.

    Btw, those thinkers who have attempted to do away with the dialectic in historical materialism have failed to provide convincing alternatives, they merely lapse into one-sided formulations of voluntarism, technological determinism and/or functionalism.

    Actually, I can only understand the materialist dialectic from the point of view of historical materialism. Certainly, that is where it is best applied.
    "Events have their own logic, even when human beings do not." - Rosa Luxemburg

    "There are decades when nothing happens; and there are weeks when decades happen." - Lenin


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    Yes, I am under the impression that historical materialism is the philosophy of dialectical materialism applied to history. Am I completely wrong?

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    Cicero, Others, As Prole Art Threat observed, historical materialism is a dialectical concept. It is my firm belief that Marx derived historical materialism from the philosophy of internal relations (world and its sub-worlds as internally related wholes) and the dialectical categories he gleaned from Hegel, then materialized. The materialist dialectic understands life, society, and historical materialism as the organic, systemic processes that they certainly are.

    THE book to read on this is Bertell Ollman's Dance of the Dialectic (2003).

    As for the mysticism charge levelled at the dialectic, this comes from overly analytic, reductionist philosophies and their practitioners--those who demand a logical certainty from life's relations. The dialectic, though, as it expresses life's unseen, "abstract" relations, cannot be so cut and dried. A proper approach to life and its relations uses both analysis and synthesis. The "mysticism" attributed to dialectic actually refers to the organizational and developmental relations of "nature, human society, and thought" (Anti-Duhring).

    A philosopher whose name I've forgotten remarked, "We think we understand 'two,' for we understand 'one' and one and one are two. However, we must also understand AND." This statement honors analysis, synthesis, and dialectic.

    The reductionist system of capitalism, its dominant reductionist science, and a significantly reductionist human consciousness that cannot see the relations of life combine to oppose dialectics. As Marx and Engels defined dialectics as "the science of the general laws of motion and development of nature, human society, and thought" (Anti-Duhring), those who call themselves Marxist but heatedly deny dialectics have little left to work on and are decidely un-Marxian.

    Of course, dialectics has existed for over a century as a most controversial, largely unusable mess. To clean up the mess, see Ollman and his groundbreaking work.

    As for those who charge dialectics with mysticism, they are logical mystics who are forever fated to remain in place theoretically--capitalism's place.

    Read Ollman, dammit!

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    Quote Originally Posted by Art Vandelay View Post
    Yes, I am under the impression that historical materialism is the philosophy of dialectical materialism applied to history. Am I completely wrong?
    Well I wouldn't consider dialectical materialism to constitute a philosophy in the first place. I prefer to see it, in the hands of Marx, as a method of analysing and organising empirical evidence. I also don't necessarily buy into the codification of 'dialectical materialism' as it is presented in communist orthodoxy and really don't care if some of its codes are empty or in error. That's not the point.

    Marx argued that our conceptualisations about the world needed to develop a dialectical quality because the world, itself, is dialectical: marked by constant change, subject to various laws of development, at both the level of nature and human society; but with each instance having its own distinct laws of development. In other words, biospheres develop according to certain laws of development inherent in their organisation and human history proceeds according to the laws inherent in its organisation. There's nothing mystical about these propositions. What would be mystical is to see these different laws of development as being imposed from the outside by Gods or cruel fate.
    "Events have their own logic, even when human beings do not." - Rosa Luxemburg

    "There are decades when nothing happens; and there are weeks when decades happen." - Lenin


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    Yes, READ OLLMAN.
    I'm reading "Dance of the Dialectic" right now and it really is incredible. I had read some Hegel before and thought I got the gist of dialectics, but Marx's materialist dialectic has some significant differences (not in the method but in how it's used) that are not immediately apparent just reading Marx. Ollman is the man.

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    I'm still only starting to understand dialectics, but to me it seems that they only become mysticism when they become ossified. That is, when one or more dialectical trend is considered to be above criticism and thus empirically unchallengeable.

    Marx used historical materialism to understand the dialects of history up to the point where he wrote. Those historical dialectics were only applicable to places that had basically the same material conditions. Applying Marxist conclusions to Russia was so awkward because the material conditions were much different there then in the area's Marx primarily applied his methods.
    Everything above is open to criticism. It's the only way to learn.

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    What exactly is the internal contradiction of matter? Wave-particle duality/E=MC^2?
    Save a species, have ginger babies!

    "Unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth." ~Albert Einstein

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    Quote Originally Posted by Prole Art Threat View Post
    Well I wouldn't consider dialectical materialism to constitute a philosophy in the first place.
    This goes directly to the point. Evidently there is a line of thought that tries to build a "dialectical" ontology (which can be seen in Hegel, on one hand, and in Engels and "diamat" on the other). But in doing such the dialectics is lost.

    I prefer to see it, in the hands of Marx, as a method of analysing and organising empirical evidence.
    And this method is discussed in the Grundrisse, in the section 3 of this chapter.

    Evidently, we are lied that the Grundrisse shouldn't be taken into account, as it remained unpublished, and so it wouldn't reflect the mature, complete thought of the author. But Marx belies that when he tells us why he published Das Kapital and did not publish the Grundrisse:

    Quote Originally Posted by Karl Marx
    Of course the method of presentation must differ in form from that of inquiry. The latter has to appropriate the material in detail, to analyse its different forms of development, to trace out their inner connexion. Only after this work is done, can the actual movement be adequately described. If this is done successfully, if the life of the subject-matter is ideally reflected as in a mirror, then it may appear as if we had before us a mere a priori construction.
    Quote Originally Posted by Prole Art Threat
    I also don't necessarily buy into the codification of 'dialectical materialism' as it is presented in communist orthodoxy and really don't care if some of its codes are empty or in error. That's not the point.
    I think this indeed is, to some extent, the point: in that the codifications of "dialectical materialism" in "communist" orthodoxy are more often than not ontologisations of method - or, to use your terms, attempts to turn dialectical materialism into a "philosophy".

    Luís Henrique

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    Quote Originally Posted by Brospierre View Post
    This is true. The materialist conception of history is central to Marxism,
    What would a "materialist conception of history" be?

    while many Marxists reject dialectics in its entirety.
    ...for instance? Who are those "many Marxists"?

    Luís Henrique

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    Quote Originally Posted by Revolution starts with U View Post
    What exactly is the internal contradiction of matter?
    "Matter" is an abstract concept; you will be unable to find any contradictions here, unless you are looking for formal contradictions.

    Dialectical contradictions can only be found in the concrete study of concrete cases.

    Luís Henrique

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    Revolution starts with U asks, "What exactly is the internal contradiction of matter?" Well, all material systems are differentiated unities such as an atom, cell, body, herd, and, when naturally organized, human communities and societies. Communism is a differentiated unity expressing natural relations.

    Prole Art Threat and Luis Henrique, I always appreciate the knowlege, integrity, and commitment the two of you bring to RevLeft, and my radical challenge to your interpretations of dialectic is offered in a comradely and not cheeky manner.

    LH, Why would a dialectical ontology lose the dialectic? Why wouldn't life have an organization the human species must follow? Wouldn't nature's relations be natural human relations as well?

    Life's organization is indeed communist: associations are formed in which the elements maintain themselves and their overall systemic organization in a dynamic, ecological, differentiated unity with the rest of life. Surely these organizational relations apply to us if we are not to separate humanity from nature.

    The scientific work that revealed the organizational relations of life to me and from which I then applied natural dialectical relations to human social systems is the theoretical physicist Fritjof Capra's Web of Life(1996). If this science is correct (it is), it potentially enables us to employ it to move out of capitalism into natural communist human relations. We can develop dialectical consciousnesses that "see" natural organizational relations and enable us to align human nature with Mother Nature.

    If "nature, human society, and thought" have a common, underlying pattern of organization, this should lead to a valid philosophy of natural human relations and relations to non-human life, shouldn't it? And this would be communism.

    A materialist concept of history would then be deeply rooted in our knowledge of the self-organization of matter by which the life process was created some 4 billion years ago. Human history, too is created by self-organizing matter: people are self-organized material systems. This new, red-green, dialectical concept of historical materialism would also show us how far off the organization-of-life track capitalism has taken us.

    PAT noted "the world, itself, is dialectical." It sure is, and the new sciences of organizational relations confirm this, and Bertell Ollman's illumination of the origins of the materialist dialectic bring it to life in the manner it came to life in Marx's mind.

    My red-green, revisionist but dialectical best.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Mr. Natural View Post
    Why would a dialectical ontology lose the dialectic? Why wouldn't life have an organization the human species must follow? Wouldn't nature's relations be natural human relations as well?
    They would if humanity were not such a unique occurrence in regards to all of nature. Human consciousness, whether it brings with it free will or not, makes man operate fundamentally different than any other aspect of nature. Natural science is premised on discovering laws that are basically eternal, that because they existed in the past will certainly exist in the future. However there are no such laws for man, and when we speak of laws in the social sciences they are implicitly less ridged than in the natural sciences. Thus there is a complete ontological break between the laws of nature and the laws of man. The former are true in all situations and at every moment, where the latter are only guidelines observed over time and are often subject to be defied by both nature and man at any given moment.

    Life's organization is indeed communist: associations are formed in which the elements maintain themselves and their overall systemic organization in a dynamic, ecological, differentiated unity with the rest of life. Surely these organizational relations apply to us if we are not to separate humanity from nature.
    Why shouldn't humanity be separated from nature? To insist that the two are fundamentally the same is to turn strict materialist ontology into a faith. There is no other formation of matter known to science that is comparable to man or other aware life. As long as the origins of awareness remain a mystery to science, religion, and philosophy, it is premature to assume that explicitly aware (or conscious) and presumably unaware matter are governed by the same logic. Especially when the moment-to-moment predictability differ so radically between the two.

    The scientific work that revealed the organizational relations of life to me and from which I then applied natural dialectical relations to human social systems is the theoretical physicist Fritjof Capra's Web of Life(1996). If this science is correct (it is), it potentially enables us to employ it to move out of capitalism into natural communist human relations. We can develop dialectical consciousnesses that "see" natural organizational relations and enable us to align human nature with Mother Nature.
    I can't say I'm familiar with the science you've pointed towards. However, I think it is far more important to bring human nature into harmony with itself than with Mother Nature. Ending both man's alienation with his own labor and false consciousness are the priority. If this happens to be in alignment with nature that is all the better. But man's nature must always be dictated in human terms, not "natural" ones.

    The crux of this argument is whether dialectics are to be used as a tool, or if they are to understood as the truth. Personally, as long as I'm being honest I'm not concerning myself with whether my beliefs regarding truth are 100% incontestable from every angle. This is why I believe dialectics are so important for an honest and practical analysis of history and society. Dialectics as an ontology always threaten to encourage dishonesty, because it is much more difficult to accept facts that threaten your notion of truth, especially if those notions lay the groundwork for your justification of revolution. Modern social analysis that recognizes dialectical movement should be constantly rebuilt on top of new empirical evidence, understanding that the only certain truth is that no two moments in time will ever be identical.
    Everything above is open to criticism. It's the only way to learn.

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    cb9's unity, Thanks for your engagement. I appreciate the open as well as critical mind you bring to the discussion as, like you, I steer away from overheated, take-no-prisoners argumentation. We're all learners, and given capitalism's global takeover and the current inability of Marxists to .respond, we have much to learn.

    I wrote, "Wouldn't nature's relations be natural human relations as well?" You responded: "They would be if humanity were not such a unique occurence in regards to all of nature. Human consciousness ... makes man operate fundamentally differently from any other aspect of nature .... There is a complete ontological break between the laws of nature and the laws of man."

    Well, the strong indication is that Marx and Engels disagree with you, although Marx didn't trumpet his understanding of man as a natural being. This seems to be more or less assumed early on. Just the same, there is Marx's well-known assertion, "That man's physical and spiritual life is linked to nature means simply that nature is linked to itself, for man is a part of nature." (emph mine; 1844 Manuscripts)

    Also from the Manuscripts: "This communism, as a fully developed naturalism, equals humanism, and as fully-developed humanism equals naturalism; it is the genuine resolution of the conflict between man and nature and between man and man ...."

    Then, in a letter to Engels, Marx remarks on Darwin and evolution: "It is in this book that the historico-natural foundations of our theory can be found."

    It is Engels, though, who in Anti-Duhring (written in close collaboration with Marx) and Dialectics of Nature really emphasizes the natural sciences as a means to understand dialectics, human nature, and man's place in life.

    Engels: "we have the advantage over all other creatures of being able to learn [nature's] laws and apply them correctly." (Dialectics of Nature)

    Engels: "There could be no question of building the laws of dialectics into nature, but of discovering them in it and evolving them from it." And "Nature is the proof of dialectics." (Anti-Duhring)

    I do agree with you that humans are separate from nature, but this is unnatural. This separation is caused by a human consciousness that cannot see thus employ life's essential organizational relations or "laws." These "laws of life" are automatically obeyed by all other living beings and definitely apply to us. Are we not life?

    My insistence that humans must develop natural relations (community in its near-infinite forms) is not faith-based by rooted in science. Here we have a problem in that you are not aware of the science(s) to which I refer. Fritjof Capra's Web of Life (1996) is the book that brings systems-complexity science down to Earth for the rest of us to understand and use. Shockingly, I know of no other Marxist who has engaged this new science of organizational relations. How about you? Web is a clearly written masterwork accessible to all.

    This neglect of the new sciences of organization by Marxists who cannot get organized should be a scandal. The Sciences and Environment forum at RevLeft is only interested in technology and scientific discoveries and shuns organizational science. Engels at Marx's graveside: "Science was for Marx a historically dynamic, revolutionary force."

    You wrote, "I think it is far more important to bring human nature into harmony with itself than with Mother Nature." My response is that harmony with the laws of Mother Nature would by a harmony with the laws of human nature and communism. Communism is naturally organized and would constitute humans consciously living as natural beings.

    Finally, you wrote, "The crux of the argument is whether dialectics are to be used as a tool, or if they are to be understood as the truth." Well, dialectics are a tool that is to be used to reveal truth. Dialectics as it stands now is a mental tool that needs further development past its klunky "laws" so it will reveal the organization of life, thus socialism/communism. Developed in this manner, dialectics will become the mental tool that will enable us to consciously design our lives in the company of others. This dialectic would not reveal truth by itself, but would show users how to arrange their minds in the pattern of life and enable them to consciously generate viable, ecological, communal anwers to the problems of life.

    To have life and society "come alive" for you as they came alive for the young Marx, see Bertell Ollman's groundbreaking work on the orgins and practice of dialectics, especially his Dance of the Dialectic (2003).

    My red-green, dialectical, natural best.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Prole Art Threat View Post
    Historical materialism is, itself, dialectical. Dialectical materialism is an attempt to explain the general laws of motion of matter and so is not, in itself, mystical. That's not to say that it might not be wrong, however.
    Precisely because of this the so called dialectics ultimately amounts to mysticism. There isn't any discursive discipline, dependant only on human language and thought alone, capable of "explaining the general laws of motion of matter". We have science for that.

    Quote Originally Posted by Prole Art Threat View Post
    Btw, those thinkers who have attempted to do away with the dialectic in historical materialism have failed to provide convincing alternatives, they merely lapse into one-sided formulations of voluntarism, technological determinism and/or functionalism.
    The convincing alternative is science. I don't think class struggle could benefit in any way conceivable from lofty speculation on the general laws of matter's motion.

    Quote Originally Posted by Prole Art Threat View Post
    Actually, I can only understand the materialist dialectic from the point of view of historical materialism. Certainly, that is where it is best applied.
    Which should actually tell you a lot about the whole dialectics issue, if you think about it (and if you don't wish to end up supporting an anti-scientific abomination such as Engels' Dialectics of Nature).

    Quote Originally Posted by Art Vandelay View Post
    Yes, I am under the impression that historical materialism is the philosophy of dialectical materialism applied to history. Am I completely wrong?
    If we understand dialectics as the investigation of the general laws of motion of matter, then there is no way to "apply" the results of that to history. If there's a part of dialectics, as the investigation of those laws, which can be applied to human history, then I'm not aware of it.

    In other words, while adherents of dialectics might argue that you are right, that still doesn't make such "application" valid, maybe even possible.
    Last edited by Thirsty Crow; 15th February 2012 at 17:56.
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    Menocchio, Why is Engels' Dialectics of Nature "an anti-scientific abomination"?

    What science are you referring to that "explains the general laws of motion of matter" and replaces the materialist dialectic and historical materialism?

    The new sciences of organizational relations (the culmination of which is systems-complelxity science) I employ essentially confirm Hegel's philosophy of internal relations and its dialectical categories and laws, and this is the source from which Marx developed the materialist dialectic and his radical understanding of life, society, capitalism, and communism as organic, systemic processes. However, I don't believe this is the science you are referencing.

    The new sciences of organizational relations I employ include evolution, the new physics, cosmology, cybernetics, chaos theory, and the aforementioned systems-complexity science. These sciences affirm Engels' overall presentation in Dialectics of Nature, although the advance of science has also disproved some of the examples he provided.

    Richard Levins and Richard Lewontin dedicated The Dialectical Biologist "To Fredereick Engels, who got it wrong a lot of the time but who got it right where it counted."

    My best to you and Croatia. Oops! I mean, my best to you and the workers of Croatia.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Mr. Natural View Post
    What science are you referring to that "explains the general laws of motion of matter" and replaces the materialist dialectic and historical materialism?
    That's easy, it's physics, though it's patently absurd to think that physics can replace historical materialism (it needn't, though it makes dialectics as I understand it superficial and irrelevant).
    I'll try to respond to the rest of your post when I'll find the time.
    FKA LinksRadikal
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    "The proletariat is its struggle; and its struggles have to this day not led it beyond class society, but deeper into it." Friends of the Classless Society

    "Your life is survived by your deeds" - Steve von Till

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    Thanks for the responses so far, though I've been hoping to see some of the anti-dialectics folks come in.

    I still don't understand(or rather, I remain unconvinced) that Historical Materialism is necessarily dialectical. What part of Historical Materialism presupposes organization into a thesis, antithesis, and synthesis?

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