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Arne Swabeck

In Defense of Dialectics

(Fall 1962)

From International Socialist Review, Vol.23 No.4, Fall 1962, pp.105-108.. [1*]
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Do Marxists suffer from an “Hegelian metaphysical jag”? Some feel that Dialectical Materialism has been rendered obsolete by the new discoveries of the physical sciences

DOES the Marxist philosophy, or more particularly, does the method of dialectical materialism have any validity as a philosophy of science? This question, since it was first propounded affirmatively by Marx and Engles, has frequently been debated by serious students of theoretical thought. It is not surprising that Studies on the Left should carry an echo of these debates.

However, the contribution by Gerald Dworkin entitled, Dialectics: A Philosophical Analysis, is a rather crude echo. Apparently the author has gained a great deal of knowledge, both useful and useless, without the aid of the dialectic, and feels entitled to his assumed superiority. In fact, he not only attempts to detract from and deprecate the subject matter, but he concludes his essay on dialectics on a distinctly derisive note. His concluding paragraph deserves to be quoted in full:

“It was said of Spinoza that his God was a hangover from an earlier religious jag. I suspect that for the Marxist much of dialectics is a hangover from an earlier Hegelian metaphysical jag. The sooner he sobers up, the sooner he will be able to work more fruitfully on the difficult and crucial problems of our time.”

Some of these difficult and crucial problems come readily to mind. There is the threat of nuclear war, the continued and varied manifestations of world crisis, and the deprivation and hunger in large areas of the world. On home grounds we have such problems as civil rights, civil liberties, unemployment and capitalist exploitation. But the question arises: if sobering up from a hangover of an earlier Hegelian metaphysical jag enables more fruitful work on these problems, why are not the many leading lights of the bourgeois world, its academic circles, its economic, social and political areas, or its agents in labor’s ranks – why are not these able to do so? They do not suffer from such a hangover. They have never been attracted to or seduced by the dialectic because they view it as an abomination. Yet, any attempt to measure the fruitfulness of their work on these difficult and crucial problems would most likely turn up zero.

It is my contention that fruitful work in these areas requires as a first prerequisite the application of the dialectical method of thought. But before entering into this aspect of the debate, let us consider the questions posed by Dworkin: Are the laws of dialectics the most general laws of motion and development and do they provide a useful methodology? He answers both questions negatively. I shall try to defend the affirmative position.

In contemporary physical sciences the comprehension of the world not as a complex of ready-made things but as a complex of processes, of changes and transformations, finds increasing acceptance. Hardly anything is regarded as given or fixed. Moreover, implicitly, if not explicitly, the great progress made in this field has been materialist in nature. To get a clearer picture of this development we need only recount some of the important discoveries. While contributing to the theory of knowledge they also splendidly illustrate the dialectical laws of natural events.

Let us start with Becquerel’s discovery of the radioactivity of natural elements. It occurred at the turn of the century. Through further research by Pierre and Marie Curie it was learned that atoms of the heavier elements were breaking up, or decomposing spontaneously, expelling with incredible speeds particles and radiation, or rays, of such intensity that they penetrate thick metals and destroy living tissues. In the process atoms of these elements are converted to atoms of other elements.

Later it became possible to explain this phenomenon in terms of nuclear forces. In the very heavy atoms where many protons and neutrons are packed within the nuclei, the forces that hold the nuclei together are inadequate and the atoms are unstable. These atoms were breaking up physically in a shower of bullet-like particles and destructive radiation. And it was the great energy of the expelled particles and rays that brought forth the realization of the tremendous source of energy that is locked within the atomic nucleus.

Thus, in the flash of radioactivity these elements were shown to be anything but immutable. They pass through a transmutation and release energy in the process. The qualitatively different characteristics of the natural elements are determined by the quantity of their atomic weight. However, with the alteration of the proportion of particles in the atomic nucleus, the character of the element is changed. Quantitative change in the discharge of particles produces a qualitative difference. Spontaneous radioactivity thus revealed these simple dialectic laws of nature at the very foundation of matter.

Here we have a concrete example of the fact that our dialectic thinking grows directly out of the dialectics of nature, and having its roots in objective reality, the dialectic method is thoroughly materialistic in character.

FURTHER objective evidence of the dialectic laws of nature has been accumulated through more recent discoveries. Particularly striking are the data gained through artificially induced nuclear fission and the resulting chain reaction. Listen to the report made by a scientist prominently associated in this venture, H.D. Smyth. In substance he stated the following:

There are two principles that have been the cornerstones of the structure of modern science. The first – that matter can be neither created nor destroyed but only altered in form (the law of the conservation of matter). The second – that energy can be neither created nor destroyed but only altered in form (the law of the conservation of energy).

“These two principles,” says Dr. Smyth, “have constantly guided and disciplined the development and application of science. For all practical purposes they are still so, but it is now known that they are, in fact, two phases of a single principle for we have discovered that energy may sometimes be converted into matter and matter into energy. Specifically, such a conversion is observed in the phenomenon of nuclear fission of uranium, a process in which atomic nuclei split into fragments with the release of an enormous amount of energy.” (Atomic Energy for Military Purposes, p.1)

In this discovery, the dialectic celebrates a great triumph. Matter is affirmed as existing only in motion as the dialectical materialists .have always maintained. There is no motion without matter. (Motion as applied to matter is not the mere change of place; it is to be understood in its widest sense of changes and transformations, quantitative and qualitative, etc.) Matter and energy are interconnected and both are interchangeable. Matter is affirmed to be itself and at the same time something else; it is not simply identical with itself as demanded by formal logic. Energy has mass and mass represents energy; they are interchangeable and both exist within the one identity. Mass and energy are different, yet they are the same. That they are different is only half the truth; that they are simultaneously the same is the whole truth.

By nuclear fission a quantitative change produces a qualitative difference. A part of the nuclear mass is converted into nuclear energy. Moreover, the neutron released as the effect of one nuclear fission becomes the cause of other fissions, and in the chain reaction cause and effect continue to change place merging and dissolving in action and interaction. Which nucleus a neutron hits is accidental, but its action lies in the necessity of the thing itself, the necessity of its motion. The accidental and the necessary, while opposites, interpenetrate and supplement one another.

It is now a well known fact that uranium #235 is fissionable; but it is very scarce, whereas uranium #238, which is more abundant, is non-fissionable. In the atomic pile uranium #238 is subjected to bombardment by neutrons, which penetrate the nuclei, remain within them and produce a transformation from uranium to plutonium. In this process the addition of quantity – the neutron – produces a new quality: the conversion of one element into another, from non-fissionable uranium to fissionable plutonium. Man produces the dialectical transformation.

WHETHER we observe nature’s own process of transmutation of the elements of radioactive matter, or the man-made transmutation by the controlled chain reaction of the atomic pile, the dialectic laws of motion and change are illustrated with compelling force.

The quantitative content of the process passes into a qualitative content. In both instances, not only is part of the nuclear mass converted into nuclear energy, but the atoms affected are converted into atoms of other elements.

The greatest contributions to a theoretical understanding of the relation between matter and energy, and their reciprocal interaction, were made by Einstein in his special theory of relativity and in the quantum theory by Max Planck. Einstein’s views caused a revolutionary upheaval in scientific thought. The theory of relativity overturned the concepts of classical physics, but only to re-embody them in a new synthesis at a higher level of scientific knowledge. In the words of Einstein and Infeld:

“The new theory shows the merits as well as the limitations of the old theory and allows us to regain our concepts from a higher level.” (Evolution of Physics, p.158.)

This confirms the Marxist contention that scientific knowledge unfolds in its successive stages, not in a mechanical but in a dialectical manner. Facts, observations, ideas, arise in opposition to prevailing views and generate seemingly insoluble contradictions. These contradictions become the motive force of scientific progress, of energetic thinking, study and research. They are finally resolved by a synthetic theory which makes room for the positive reality of both sides of the contradiction but eliminates the one-sided form in which they first appear.

The quantum theory marked a distinct departure from classical mechanics. Where continuity had previously reigned supreme, the quantum theory introduced the concept of discontinuity. Not only the energy of radiation but matter and electricity are viewed as having a granular structure. Electrons, the elementary particles of matter, were henceforth to be regarded as elementary quanta of negative electricity.

Einstein indicated a wider scope for the quantum theory in its application to the phenomena of light. This he based on the assumption that homogeneous light is composed of energy grains, or light quanta called photons. The assumption found support in the observational evidence that a beam of light bends in a gravitational field. A beam of light carries energy and energy has mass which is attracted by the gravitational field. But the wave theory of light had been previously established; the different wave lengths had been measured. So here we had, declared Einstein and Infeld, “two contradictory pictures of reality; separately neither of them fully explains the phenomena of light, but together they do!” (The Evolution of Physics, p.278.)

Why these contradictory pictures of reality should, in the words of Dworkin, cause “more confusion” or lead to “despair or irrationalism” is somewhat of a mystery. Tacitly, if not formally, the Einstein-Infeld statement supports the dialectical interpretation of natural phenomena. It is the contradictory aspects of reality, everywhere and in everything, that constitute its fundamental feature.

CONCERNING continuity or discontinuity, either concept by itself alone is, of course, one-sided. In reality both exist simultaneously. Rather, continuity and discontinuity should be viewed as an interacting process. Nature, in its general and multiform manifestations, is both continuous and discontinuous. Can we not say that this is particularly the case with the phenomena of light, i.e., the light that we receive from the sun and the stars? Aside from the contradictory pictures of waves and particles, we should note the existence simultaneously of continuity and discontinuity. These opposites interpenetrate one another.

From the standpoint of the wave theory, light must be said to be quantitatively continuous. A beam of light consists of a continuous flow of waves in space. Light is qualitatively discontinuous, however, since it exists in a variety of qualitatively different wavelength forms composing the spectrum.

From the standpoint of the quantum theory, light must be said to be quantitatively discontinuous. Light is emitted in the form of a stream of discrete units of quanta (photons). On the other hand, light is now qualitatively continuous, since the photons all consist of the same form of radiant energy.

The separation and opposition of continuity and discontinuity exist only within their unity and interconnection. All that moves is contradictory, and this arises out of the contradictory nature of reality itself. In this the contradiction is not the end of the matter but, as Hegel insisted, it cancels itself.

“Motion itself is a contradiction,” says Engels, “even simple mechanical change of place can only come about through a body at one and the same moment of time, being both in one place and in another place, being in one and the same place, and also not in it. And the continuous assertion and simultaneous solution of this contradiction is precisely what motion is.” (Anti-Dühring, International Publishers, p.132.)

But Dworkin denies that contradictions have any relation to reality. He states categorically: “It is nonsense then to say that contradictions exist in the world. Contradictions are properties of statements, not objects.” By a strange coincidence – or perhaps it is not so strange – this statement corresponds almost word for word with the position of Herr Dühring, against whom Engels polemicized. Said Herr Dühring:

“Contradiction is a category which can only appertain to a combination of thoughts, but not to reality. There are no contradictions in things, or, to put it another way, contradiction applied to reality is itself the apex of absurdity.” (Quoted by Engels in Anti-Dühring, p.131.)

Having thus unwittingly aligned himself with some of Herr Dühring’s notions, it is not too surprising that Dworkin attacks the observation made by Engels: “Life is also a contradiction which is present in things and processes themselves, and which continually asserts and solves itself.” Surely this, says Dworkin, “is anthropomorphism run wild.” How so? What Engels clearly defines as the contradiction of organic life is the continual cycle of accretion and destruction. He shows that the simultaneous building-up of cells on the one hand and their decay on the other, constitute the basis, the condition, for the process of life. Organic life is properly pictured in its dynamic state, as a self-completing process of constant chemical reaction, according to which the existence of a delicate balance between breakdown and synthesis is precisely what life is. Most certainly contradictions are objectively present in the world and when contradiction ceases life itself comes to an end. What these observations have to do with anthropomorphism still remains to be explained.

Dworkin laments what he calls the lack of definition of the term opposite, and how opposites are related. Again, one may ask, how so? Consider the example just mentioned above. We have in that a clear definition of opposites, the building-up and the breaking-down. Dialectically, these opposites are so closely interconnected that the one cannot exist without the other. Not only do they not exclude one another, but in their interpenetration they mutually condition each other.

A Confirmation

“The well established view today is rather that everything – anything at all – is at the same time particle and field. Everything has the continuous structure with which we are familiar from the field, as well as the discrete structure with which we «re equally familiar from particles . . . The difficulty, in all cases equally great, of combining these two so very different character traits in one mental picture is still the main stumbling-block which causes our conception of matter to be so wavering and uncertain.”
– Erwin Schroedinger, What Is Life?

“Closer investigation also shows us that the two poles of an antithesis, like positive and negative, are just as inseparable from each other as they are opposed, and that despite all their opposition they mutually penetrate each other.”
– Friedrich Engels, Anti-Dühring

TURNING from motion and development in nature to the social arena, we find that contradictions become even more pronounced. Outstanding is the example of the class struggle in society. It has been the connecting link in successive stages of civilization; now it reflects primarily the contradiction between socialized production and capitalist appropriation. But even aside from this aspect, capitalism is not a stable system. Although its development is determined by objective laws, contradictory tendencies are deeply embedded in its foundation and these become part of the objective laws. From a fairly early stage, elements of growth and expansion unfolded side by side with elements of crisis and decline. These tendencies interpenetrate one another and are in constant interaction. Because of this a sustained equilibrium and smooth vectors of movement are not possible. Capitalist production begets a vicious circle. Economic cycles alternate between boom and crisis; a glutted market leads to depression, an economic upturn creates new glut which again plunges the economy into depression.

During the early stages of capitalist development elements of growth and expansion predominated over those of crisis and decline. But they did not prove enduring. A whole set of explosive changes acted to turn the early progressive features into their opposite. Elements of crisis, of decline and decay, came more to the fore and became predominant.

Let us consider next the question posed by Dworkin: if the laws of dialectics are actually the most general laws of motion, “we should expect to find physicists, chemists, biologists and sociologists making use of them every day. The fact that they do not can hardly be attributed to class bias.” Of that I am not so sure. Some scientists do make use of these laws, but their numbers are few. Some scientists even do so unconsciously. Why the overwhelming majority do not, I still believe to have been anticipated by Marx when he wrote in his preface to the second edition of Capital:

“In the mystical form (the Hegelian form – AS) dialectic became the fashion in Germany because it seemed to transfigure and to glorify the existing state of things. In its rational form it is a scandal and abomination to bourgeoisdom and its doctrinaire professors, because it includes in its comprehension an affirmative recognition of the existing state of things, at the same time also, the recognition of the negation of that state, of its inevitable breaking up; because it regards every historically developed social form as in fluid movement, and therefore takes into account its transient nature not less than its momentary existence; because it lets nothing impose upon it, and is in its essence critical and revolutionary.” (Capital, Kerr edition, Vol.I, pp.25, 26.)

What Dworkin calls the last law of the dialectic seems to arouse his greatest indignation. Incidentally, this leads him also the farthest astray. “The last law,” he reveals, “inspired by the famous triad of Hegel – thesis, antithesis, synthesis – is in my opinion the most obscure, useless and mystical of them all.” Referring to the application by Marx of this law of the dialectic to the course of capitalist development, Dworkin declares:

“It is the characteristic of always finding the exemplification of dialectics in events after they have been explained by other methods that casts grave doubts upon the whole procedure.”

Let us see what Marx’s position was – according to Marx, not Dworkin:

“The capitalist mode of appropriation, the result of the capitalist mode of production produces capitalist private property. This is the first negation of individual private property as founded on the labor of the proprietor. But capitalist production begets, with the inexorability of a law of Nature, its own negation. It is the negation of the negation. This does not re-establish private property for the producer, but gives him individual property based on the acquisitions of the capitalist era: i.e., on co-operation and the possession in common of the land and of the means of production.” (Ibid., p.837.)

By the logical method of treatment (the logic of the dialectic) Marx at this point analysed the transition from feudalism to the capitalist mode of production, which negated the individual private ownership by the workers of their means of labor. The deductions made, he. verified by the facts of history. From this analysis Marx drew the conclusion that “capitalist production begets, with the inexorability of a law of Nature, its own negation.” This is not at all, as Dworkin tries to make us believe, “always finding the exemplification of dialectics in events after they have been explained by other methods.” Quite the contrary. By means of the dialectical method Marx was able to predict from his analysis – I repeat predict – the negation of the negation, the expropriation of the expropriators, the transformation of society. Without doubt, this was the most monumental and the most far-reaching prediction ever recorded in human history.

In terms of exceptional clarity, Marx and his collaborator, Engels, explained the evolution of human society. Every historical period, they maintained, develops its own contradictions. Whenever one order of things becomes dominant within one particular stage, it has already given birth to a new tendency, an opposite tendency.

Thus, for example, in Europe during the Middle Ages small-scale production was general, and existed on the basis of the private ownership by the producers of their means of labor. But the great maritime discoveries of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries stimulated world-wide commerce and the steady growth of a market for manufactured goods, which could not be satisfied by the dwarfish, scattered, limited and individual means of production. This contradiction had to be resolved, and it was resolved through the transition from handicraft to manufacture and to large-scale industry. The new productive forces thus set in motion became incompatible with feudal forms of organization, and these were therefore annihilated. Individualized, scattered means of production were transformed into socially concentrated ones. The pigmy property of the many became the huge property of the few. The great mass of the people were divorced from their means of subsistence and from their means of labor. Capitalist private property, which rests on the exploitation of the nominally free labor of others, negated individual private ownership by the individual producers of their tools and instruments of labor.

Out of this development a new system of society, qualitatively different from its predecessor, arose – the natural effect of an accumulation of quantitative changes in the old society. The contradictions that arose became the crucial factors around which centered the transformation of the whole entity to the next stage. Thus the historical process and its contradictions were enabled to develop dialectically.

UNDER capitalism, Marx and Engels explained, large-scale industry develops not only the material forces of production, but also the antagonisms and conflicts between the classes born of it. Centralization of the means of production and socialization of labor collide with capitalist appropriation. The increasing proletarianization of the mass of the people is matched by an ever greater mass of unsaleable goods. Overproduction with unemployment and want existing simultaneously – this is the absurd contradiction which makes the liberation of the productive forces by means of the socialist transformation an imperative necessity. And the development of the productive forces at last reach a point where they become incompatible with their capitalist integument. “This integument is burst asunder. The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated.” This is how Marx foresaw the negation of the negation.

Entirely aware that the crucial problem was not merely to interpret the world, but to change it, both Marx and Engels saw in the development of the productive forces the material conditions for the solution of the contradictions of capitalist society, and the means by which this solution becomes possible. The laws of social development, which they had discovered, created the opportunity for effective and consciously directed social action.

And so it turned out to be in 1917. The Russian Revolution took the first step toward the socialist transformation of society. The expropriators were expropriated. This signalled the beginning of the transition to a qualitatively new historical stage. The limitations of the capitalist mode of production and its contradictory relations found their solution in a higher mode of production founded on nationalized property and state planning in the Soviet system of social relations. Revolutions in China and Cuba have since followed the same example.

In the Russian revolution the Bolshevik party was victorious primarily owing to the comprehension and application by its leadership of the method of dialectical materialism. Conversely, by this victory the concepts of Marxism were brilliantly confirmed. But the Bolshevik party itself arose out of the contradictions that had beset the working class movement. This party, in fact, became the positive and the conscious affirmation of what Dworkin concedes to be the triad of Hegel; the party’s existence and its revolutionary position exemplified the negation of the negation in working class political development.

Initially the socialist movement had been inspired by the revolutionary ideas of Marx and Engels. But the powerful and dynamic expansion of capitalism exerted a corrupting influence. The working class grew in numbers, socialist votes mounted at elections, resulting in greater representation in parliaments; the parties became mass parties with growing and prospering institutions. Democratic reforms, and other concessions, that capitalism could afford to give, the moTe conservative members were anxious to preserve. Social reformism found nourishment in this soil. The leaders, whose influence grew with the growth of the parties adapted themselves to the needs of capitalism; they became anxious to preserve the political status quo. Under their direction the practice of class collaboration replaced the policy of class struggle. Losing sight of the socialist objective, the leaders set about reconciling the workers to capitalist rule. This culminated in their support of the imperialist government in World War I. Thus was negated the revolutionary essence of the early socialist movement.

The contradictions to which this gave rise created an inevitable opposite current. Out of the betrayals a left wing movement developed and it took on concrete form in the Bolshevik party. Thus the revolutionary essence of Marxism was restored to its rightful place in history, and restored on a higher level – the level of working class victory. With this victory, the Bolsheviks broke through and demolished the social-reformist barriers to working class advance. And as the development of social-reformism had in the preceding stage negated the revolutionary essence of Marxism, so this was, in its turn, negated. As a result of this negation of the negation the Bolshevik party became the most important link in a whole chain of historical developments. Its aims, its objectives and its program expressed the interests and the welfare of the working population, and it led the way to the realization of this program.

By their action the Bolsheviks taught the world a great lesson. They applied the Marxist analysis of history to the solution of the difficult and crucial problems of their time. There need be no doubt that the same methodology will provide equally fruitful results in dealing with the difficult and crucial problems of our time.


Editor’s Note

1*. This article is a reply to an attempted refutation of dialectical materialism by Gerald Dworkin, appearing in Studies on the Left, Vol.2 No.1, 1961. The editors published only a part of the reply; the last section dealing with social developments being entirely omitted. We think the student of Marxism would be interested to read the whole reply by Arne Swabeck published in this issue.

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