August Thalheimer: Introduction to Dialectical Materialism


10 - Dialectics I

In this chapter we will discuss dialectics proper. Previous chapters have shown that dialectics has a history which embraces many thousands of years and that it has passed through various stages of development. Disregarding the beginnings of dialectics in Indian and Chinese philosophy, the following main stages can be distinguished: (the dialectics of the old Greek philosophers of nature, Heraclitus; (2) the second and higher stage, the dialectics of Plato and Aristotle; (3) Hegelian dialectics; and (4) materialistic dialectics. Dialectics itself has undergone a dialectical development. Heraclitus, representing the first stage, develops the dialectics of one-after-the-other; Plato and Aristotle, representing the second stage, develop the dialectics of one-beside-the-other. The latter is in opposition to the dialectics of the first stage, being its negation. Hegel embraces both preceding stages of development and raises them to a higher stage. He develops the dialectics of the one-after-the-other and the one-beside-the-other, but in an idealistic form; in other words, he develops an historico-idealistic dialectics. The dialectics of antiquity was limited. I pointed out earlier where the basis of this limitation is to be found: namely, in the mode of production and the class relations of ancient Greece, particularly in the slave economy and in the social relations resulting from this slave economy. Not until the advent of materialistic dialectics were these limitations completely overcome. This new dialectics is not restricted; it is universalized. And here too I will briefly point out the relation of this universalized dialectics to the fundamental relations of class and production. Materialistic dialectics is developed by workers who have the working-class point of view, the point of view of the proletarian revolution. This point of view demands the elimination of classes, and consequently the elimination of class society. As a result of the elimination of classes and class society, the last limitation on social development and on the idea of development in general collapses. For Aristotle as well as for Plato and even Hegel, class society itself was something that development could not transcend. For Plato and Aristotle slave economy was the final and absolute limitation; with Hegel it was bourgeois society. In dialectical materialism, however, or from the viewpoint of the working class, class society is not in itself ultimate or final; it is by no means the absolute limit of social development. It is itself subject to dialectical development and is part of the stream of social evolution. The generalized and at the same time materialistic form of dialectics is a natural result of the generalization of this point of view. Incidentally, bourgeois scholars have of late again turned to dialectics. In one form or another Hegel's dialectics has been revived in Germany. In France the philosopher Bergson has developed a peculiar form of dialectics. However, this bourgeois form of dialectics, as it has reappeared in recent years, is idealistic throughout; or, as in the case of Bergson, it is an idealistic dialectics which at the same time reverts to the first stage of dialectics, i.e., to the point of view of Heraclitus.

Dialectics may be characterized as the science which treats of the general relations in nature, in history, and in thought. The opposite of dialectics is the isolated consideration of things, and the consideration of things only in their fixity. Dialectics, on the contrary, considers all things in their most general relations, in their mutual relations of dependency, not in their fixity but in their development. The question might be raised: How do we know of this mysterious science of dialectics? Whence do we procure this wisdom? There are three sources from which dialectics has been derived. The first source is nature, the observation of natural processes. This is how Heraclitus first came upon the idea of dialectics. The second source is the observation of human history, of changes which occur from one historical period to another, changes in the mode of production, in the forms of society, and in the social ideologies associated with them. This is the second source. The third source is the examination of human thought itself. And here a further question is raised: what is the guarantee that the laws of dialectical thought that we find in our minds correspond to the laws of reality, to the laws of change in nature and in history? This correspondence is not particularly remarkable, for man, after all, is only a part of nature. Human thought is in the last analysis a natural process, of the same kind as any other process in nature. That human thought corresponds to the laws of nature and history is, therefore, not astonishing. Rather, one could say that the opposite would be inconceivable.

I cannot, of course, develop all the details of dialectics in a work of this scope. What I propose to do is to develop its fundamental laws. I shall give several examples as a basis of elucidation. Further, I shall point out the inner relation of these fundamental laws of dialectics. If these things are a bit difficult, it must be realized that they can only be understood through repeated study. Yet you will find that they are not incomprehensible secrets, that ultimately anyone can grasp them because everyone has the proof of dialectics in his daily experience as well as in his own mind. In this respect human thought is exactly the same in all minds.

The most general and the most inclusive fundamental law of dialectics from which all others are deduced is the law of the permeation of opposites. This law has a two-fold meaning: first, that all things, all processes, all concepts merge in the last analysis into an absolute unity, or, in other words, that there are no opposites, no differences which cannot ultimately be comprehended into a unity. Second, and just as unconditionally valid, that all things are at the same time absolutely different and absolutely or unqualifiedly opposed. This law may also be referred to as the law of the polar unity of opposites. This law applies to every single thing, to every single phenomenon, and to the world as a whole. Viewing thought and its method alone, it can also be put this way:

The human mind is capable of infinite condensation of things into unities, even the sharpest contradictions and opposites, and, on the other hand, it is capable of infinite differentiation and analysis of things into opposites. The human mind can establish this unlimited unity and unlimited differentiation because this unlimited unity and differentiation is present in reality.

A few examples will make this universal law clearer. Take the example of night and day. There is the twelve-hour day and the twelve-hour night, a period of light and a period of darkness. Day and night are opposites; they are mutually exclusive. This, however, does not prevent their being, at the same time, parts of a 24-hour day. Take another example: male and female. These particular opposites played a decisive rule in ancient Chinese philosophy. The opposition between male and female was made the fundamental law of the philosophy of Yih-king or Book of Transformations. Male and female are opposites. But this does not prevent man and woman from being identical, from coinciding as forms of the more general concept, mankind. Insofar as they both are forms of mankind they are completely identical. Take other opposites, opposites in nature such as rest and motion. Common sense regards rest and motion as absolutely different processes. Whatever rests, rests, and whatever moves, moves. The physicist, however, conceives of rest merely as a special kind of motion and vice versa. He can look upon every motion as a kind of rest. Those who are acquainted with modern physics will have a better comprehension of these things. Let us consider another opposition which appears to be absolute: it is customary to oppose art and nature. As opposed to the creations of nature, art is a creation of man. Art, however, is also a part of nature, since the man who produces art is himself nothing but a part of nature. These examples could be multiplied indefinitely, and their implications are much more far-reaching than these simple examples indicate. I cite these, however, so that you will have as clear a conception as possible of this law.

Where only simple objects of direct perception are involved, and where strong social interests are not involved, this conception which asserts the identity of opposites will usually meet with no difficulties. Obstacles to this conception present themselves when social interests oppose it or when it is no longer a question of ideas or concepts closely related to direct sense perception but of general concepts far removed from sense perception. Here too I will give a few examples. It is very easy for us to realize today that the slave as well as the slave-owner is a human being, although socially they are the most extreme opposites conceivable. But if you had told a Greek, even the most intelligent, that the slave and the slave-owner were alike as human beings, he would not have accepted it under any circumstances and would have answered that they were absolutely opposed to each other and that there could be no identity between them. Or take a modern instance, the capitalist and the proletarian, the employer and the worker. Every bourgeois will take for granted that the capitalist and the proletarian are opposed. In fact, he will maintain that this opposition has always existed and will always exist, and that it cannot be bridged. In order to understand that thisopposition is historical and transitory, one must have the the point of view of the the revolutionary working class. Or take another matter which is closer to you: we spoke before of man and woman. Everyone will admit that man and woman, from the point of view of natural science, are members of the same species, that man and woman are homogeneous, human in the same way. But as soon as I come to the social realm, contradictions immediately arise. A whole series of major historical revolutions would be necessary for mankind to conceive and apply the idea that woman should have the same human rights that man has. I don't have to tell you that in a great many countries of the Orient practical recognition of the equality between man and woman has not yet been realized. In all these cases a person who has not learned to think dialectically and who is moved by particular interests will maintain that these opposites are absolute. Only a person trained in dialectics will perceive the permeation of opposites. Of course, this does not depend only upon training in dialectics, but also upon the class viewpoint, the social viewpoint which the individual adopts. I should like to consider one more question which belongs in the same field. You know that in the United States a social distinction is made between white and colored people, and in Europe between the European, who is supposed to represent a higher class, and the colored, black and yellow races. To comprehend, both theoretically and practically, that these are not absolute opposites but that they are united in the concept of mankind which is shared equally by the white, the black, and the yellow - to comprehend this requires not only a dialectically-trained mind, but also a definite class viewpoint. The untrained mind, however, is confronted with peculiar difficulties when general concepts are in question, difficulties which increase the more abstract, the more obscure, and the farther removed these concepts are from sense perception. That both day and night are parts of the twenty-four-hour day is easily understood. But it is more difficult with such opposites as true and false, and still more difficult with the concepts of being and non-being, which are the most general of all, the most inclusive, and, at the same time, the poorest in content. The average person will say: how can one unite such absolute opposites as being and non-being? Either a thing is or it is not. There can be no bridge or common ground between them. In the treatment of Heraclitus I have already shown how the concepts of being and non-being actually permeate each other in everything that changes, how they are contained in changing things at the same time and in the same way; for a thing which is developing is something and at the same time is not that something. For example: a child which is developing into a man is a child and at the same time not a child. So far as it is becoming a man, it ceases to be a child. But it is not yet a man, because it has not yet developed into a man. The concept of becoming contains the concepts of being and non-being. In this concept they permeate each other. Or let us take another example which I have already given, the example of ordinary locomotion, i.e., when a body moves from one place to another. While it is moving it is at a certain place, and at the same time it is not at this place. I will take a third opposition, a great stumbling-block for common sense, the opposition of material and mental, of materiality and thought, or of materiality and consciousness. The average untutored mind believes that these two opposites have nothing in common. The material is not mental, and the mental is not material, and that is that. We have already demonstrated how both become a unity; how thought, the mental, is a material activity and is therefore bound to the material.

Now I will show you the obverse side of the medal, the other aspect of the proposition of the permeation of opposites. We said at the outset that there were no opposites which could not be united, no opposites between which there was no identity. Now we maintain at the same time that there are no two things between which there is not some difference, some opposition. In other words: the opposition of things is just as unlimited as their identity. To make this clearer I will tell you a little anecdote taken from the history of philosophy. German philosopher, Leibnitz, who lived at the end of the seventeenth and during the first half of the eighteenth century, formulated the proposition that there are no two things which are not different. One day he was out walking with a group of courtiers. The conversation turned upon this proposition and someone proposed to see whether or not there were two identical leaves on a certain tree standing by the wayside. The ladies and gentlemen of the court examined the tree and, of course, could not find two leaves which were perfectly identical. It is in the nature of things as well as in the nature of mind that no two things exist which do not differ. The same can be said of two rain drops. One will never be exactly like the other. Or take the smallest components of matter: two electrons which form parts of an atomic system can never be absolutely identical. We can say this with certainty even though we are not yet in a position to know anything about the individual peculiarities of electrons. (As far as atoms and molecules are concerned, we can at least determine differences in kind.) This is based on the proposition of the permeation of opposites, the proposition which says that the identity of things is just as unlimited as their difference. The capacity of the mind infinitely to equate things as well as to differentiate and oppose, corresponds to the infinite identity and difference of things in nature. This is primary. You will also find the same thing if you compare all the most general concepts, such as being and non-being, materiality and thought, etc. We have previously shown that being and non-being exist simultaneously in becoming, that they constitute identical elements of becoming. But this does not preclude their being opposites at the same time, i.e., being and non-being are different.

This law of the permeation of opposites will probably be new to you, something to which you have not previously given thought. Upon closer examination you will discover that you cannot utter a single meaningful sentence which does not comprehend this proposition. Except for sentences such as, "A lion is a lion," where the subject and predicate are identical, a meaningless sentence, this proposition can be found everywhere. Let us take a rather common sentence: "The lion is a beast of prey." A thing, A, the lion, is equated with a thing B. At the same time a distinction is made between A and B. So far as the lion is a beast of prey, it is equated with all beasts of that kind. At the same time, in the same sentence, it is distinguished from the kind. It is impossible to utter a sentence which will not contain the formula, A equals B. All meaningful sentences have a form which is conditioned by the permeation of opposites. This contradiction contained in every meaningful sentence, the equation and at the same time the differentiation between subject and predicate, had already been noticed by the so-called "sophists" of the classic period of Chinese philosophy when they argued whether or not "white horse" was really a horse.

Now our question is: what is the origin of this basic law? And this is the answer: in the first place, it is a generalization of experience. In daily life and in science we constantly have to search for the identities as well as the differences of things, and experience shows that there are no rigid, fixed limits to the discovery of either. Existing limits are mobile, relative, and temporary; they are constantly being broken, reset, and rebroken.

Secondly, this law of the permeation of opposites may be deduced from the examination of thought itself. It is a law of thought as well as of nature. In thought this law is inherent in the basis of consciousness, and this basis consists in the fact that I know that I am a part of the universe, a part of being, and, on the other hand, in the fact that I know myself to be distinct from the external world, distinct from other things. The basic structure of thought is, from the very beginning, a polar unity of opposites, and from this all other laws of thought are derived. Furthermore, this polar unity of thought corresponds to the nature of all things