What is dialectical materialism? An introduction

Apr 4, 2018
A study group at Highlander taking place outside. A Black man seated in a chair is speaking as a small multinational group listens, sitting in a circle.

After the deaths of Marx and Engels, socialists began taking up the important task of summarizing their work for popularization. In 1919, for example, Georg Lukács, the Hungarian Marxist, argued that the essence of Marx’s project is not the correctness or incorrectness of his many theses, but rather, his dialectical method. Stressing the significance of Marx’s method Lukács notes that it is a “weapon” of the proletariat and “an instrument of war” (1919/1971, 224). Marx never wrote a text on dialectics or even used the term “dialectical materialism,” and so articulating Marx’s dialectic was left to Engels and those who followed. There are, as a result, a great many debates about what exactly dialectical materialism is. There has also been a tendency to oversimplify dialectical materialism into a mechanical and deterministic dogma.

This article outlines Marx’s method, dialectical materialism, a theory and manner of understanding change. It is a theory that grasps how many of the competing social forces driving the movement of society are often hidden or mystified, and that gives us a way of uncovering them. It is a method that understands that unveiling social forces must be done in such a way as to foster class-for-self-consciousness within the working class as a revolutionary force. Toward these ends this article introduces the major components of dialectical materialism, including the negation of the negation, sublation, the unity of opposites, and the transformation of quantity into quality.

What is Marx’s method?

In developing his method, Marx challenged what he considered to be vulgar materialism for its tendency to ignore the totality and the relationship between consciousness and material reality. A philosophical term, the “totality” refers to the total of existence in any given moment. At the same time, Marx rejected pure idealism for substituting material reality with the idea of reality (i.e. with abstract thought). Idealism therefore leads to the false assumption that alienation or estrangement can be overcome in the realm of thought alone, as if we could change our material reality by changing our ideas and beliefs.

Rather, Marx’s dialectical method is based on “the unifying truth of both” (1844/1988, 154). What this means is that “it is not enough that thought should seek to realize itself; reality must also strive toward thought.” In other words, Marx’s method entails the examination of the relationship between ideas and material reality, specifically as it pertains to class struggle and the emancipation of the proletariat. Marx’s dialectics are called “dialectical materialism” in contrast with Hegel’s dialectics. Marx wrote that he “discover[ed] the rational kernel within the mystical shell” (1867/1967, 29) of Hegel’s dialectics.

To realize this revolution the working-class must not only understand the interaction of forces behind the development of society, but it must understand itself as one of those forces. The dialectic is a powerful weapon because it breaks through the capitalist illusion of individualism and atomism and disrupts the idea that isolated facts speak for themselves. Only by situating facts or ideas in the historical totality of society do they begin to make real sense. To comprehend this revolutionary movement we must conceive the interaction of forces as much more than the interaction of static and independent entities. When the parts of the totality change, their relationship to the totality changes, and they themselves change. Dialectics presents reality as an ongoing social process; nothing is ever static or fixed.

Dialectics is both a method–or a way of investigating and understanding phenomena–and a fact of existence. For Engels, what is most central to dialectics is the tendency toward perpetual “motion and development” (1894/1987, 131). What follows is a summary of the dialectical theory of movement and change. The concept around which the dialectical understanding of development revolves is the negation of the negation, which will be taken up first, before turning to the concept of sublation. The unity of opposites or the interpenetration of opposites, a central driving force of the dialectic is then explored. Finally, we look at the tendency toward the transformation of quantity into quality, which in turn allows us to understand the negation of the negation more deeply.

The negation of the negation

The tendency toward the negation of the negation is arguably at the heart of dialectical development. Engels, for example, notes that the negation of the negation is “extremely general—and for this reason extremely far-reaching and important” (1894/1987, 131). The negation of the negation refers specifically to the way that phenomena and structures produce their opposites.

For example, in the first volume of Capital, Marx (1867/1967) writes that capitalist private property is the negation of individual private property, or property held by the proprietor or individual laborer. Peasant proprietors, as small-scale industrial producers, tended to own private property and produced their own means of subsistence. This small-scale, scattered, petty industry of the peasants was limited in terms of its ability to foster economic growth. The advent of the capitalist era included the expropriation of the peasants from their means of production. The logic of the feudal system and exchange created the agencies of its own annihilation.

While feudalism was overcome in capitalism, aspects of it were preserved but reconfigured in a way to facilitate economic growth. For example, the private property of peasants was abolished, but private property itself was not.

Capitalism concentrates and centralizes property, tending towards monopoly. Bigger capitalists buy out or otherwise out maneuver smaller capitalists. At the same time, capitalism creates its antagonist: the working class. As capital grows so too does the working class. These contradictions provide the basis for the second negation: the expropriation of the expropriators, or the transformation of capitalism into socialism.

Under socialism the means of production that existed under capitalism are preserved. Instead of being held in private they are held in common. In place of exploitation the means of production are put in the service of meeting the many needs of the producers. This process is called sublation. When something is sublated it is both overcome yet preserved. We can also see sublation at work in Marx’s theory of monopoly. Monopolies create the material basis for socialism as they aggregate and concentrate productive forces. Socialist revolution expropriates these from the capitalists, but instead of breaking them up into smaller enterprises, the working class takes control of them as they are. If this is still a bit confusing at this point, it should be clearer after we go through the other components of dialectics.

Of course, capitalism is not going to automatically transform into socialism, even though its own internal logic orients its development in that general direction. Capitalist crises and contradictions are necessary for socialist revolutions but they are not sufficient. If they were sufficient, then we would already be living under socialism!

The interpenetration of opposites

What compels entities to be in a constant state of motion are their internal contradictions, or the forces generated by the unity of opposites. The most central or essential contradiction within capitalism is between labor and capital.

Labor and capital are opposites because they have contradictory drives. For example, historically, labor has spontaneously sought to decrease the rate of exploitation by collectively bargaining for higher wages, better conditions, benefits, and so on. When successful, these decrease profit margins. Capital, on the other hand, seeks to always increase the rate of exploitation. Labor and capital are therefore compelled by opposite and antagonistic drives. This antagonism can be managed and mediated by unions and state regulation, but it can only be overcome through the negation of the negation.

Labor and capital, as such, do not have an independent existence apart from each other. To be a worker is by definition to be exploited by capital, and to be a capitalist is by definition to exploit workers. The relationship between labor and capital is therefore internal and constitutes the totality. As a relation of exploitation, capital is a unity of contradictions. The dialectical development of this relationship over time is the movement of the balances of forces within capitalism.

A common mistake is to conceptualize the movement generated from antagonistically-related social classes as the interaction of separate forces external to each other. This leads to the false belief that the role of the working-class revolution today is to destroy capitalism and replace it with socialism. Socialism can only be created out of what already exists.

Marx and Engels believed that socialism would first emerge out of the most developed capitalist countries. This did not turn out to be true, as socialism emerged first in Russia, an underdeveloped, predominantly feudal-based country. Socialism, nevertheless, was ushered in by the producers and created out of an old society, not separate from it.

Quantity into quality

The tendency toward the transformation of quantity into quality offers deeper insight into the negation of the negation. So far, we have seen how the essential contradiction within capitalism is the labor/capital relationship, which is an example of the unity of opposites. We also saw the sublation of private property from one negated mode of production to the next. Investigating the interrelationship of these two issues will provide the basis for our example of the transformation of quantity into quality.

The inherently unequal relationship between labor and capital was established, in part, through the violence of expropriating peasants from their means of production. Without direct access to the means of production, former peasants were forced to sell their ability to work for a wage, thereby becoming part of the working class. Although beyond the scope of this short introduction, it’s crucial to note that the violence of slavery, colonialism, and settler colonialism were equally important in establishing capitalism.

The competition between capitalists drives technological development. Because the price of any given commodity tends to center around the average amount of time its production requires, devising new technologies that can reduce the number of labor hours it takes to produce whatever commodity is a tendency internal to capitalism.

In the short term this gives the capitalist at the technological forefront a competitive advantage because they can sell the commodity below its social value. But as soon as the new technology gets integrated into the entire branch or branches of industry, the average amount of time that it takes to produce whatever commodity lowers, and the competition begins anew.

While new labor-saving technologies can be super profitable for individual capitalists in the short term, in the long term it reduces the number of labor hours simultaneously set into motion. It also means that more capital is invested into machinery rather than workers. And since workers produce value and machines do not, this contributes to the tendency of the falling rate of profit.

When the amount of labor hours it takes to transform a given quantity of raw materials into whatever commodity is reduced, the composition of capital shifts quantitatively, by degree. Historically, individual capitalists have countered the falling rate of their profit margins in many ways such as devising schemes to reduce the price they pay for labor even while its value remains the same thereby pushing the laborer into depravity and impoverishment. The capitalist, driven to counter the falling rate of profit by extracting more and more value from the laborer, thereby deepens capital’s crisis.

The internal drive of capital to forever expand the accumulation of surplus value brings the unity of opposites, labor and capital, into growing conflict with each other. This movement is the developmental process at the heart of the dialectics of capitalism. While the capitalist has an interest in maintaining the contradiction and creating the illusion of capital’s permanence, the objective interest of labor is to resolve the contradiction, thereby changing the quality of production relations. This is quantity into quality and the center of struggle between labor and capital. The quantitative changes provide the basis or possibility of qualitative change.


One of the reasons why dialectical materialism is so important is because it embodies a deep revolutionary optimism. Drawing attention to the fact that the future already exists as an unrealized potential within the present demystifies the seeming permanence of capitalism. In other words, it reveals the defeat of imperialism as a real potential and not a fantasy. For example, it is a fact that the most advanced means of production, labor saving technologies, as they currently exist, are able to meet the basic needs of every person in the world. In this way, the future liberation of humanity from exploitation and material oppression already exists.

The practicality of the aforementioned optimism resides in the fact that Marx’s method correctly locates the agent of revolutionary transformation within the working class, the many.


-Engels, F. (1894/1987). Anti-Duhring. In Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels: Collected Works (vol. 25). New York: International Publishers.
-Lukács, G. (1919/1971). History and Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics. Cambridge: MIT.
-Marx, K. (1844/1988). Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. New York: Prometheus Books.
-Marx, K. (1867/1967). Capital: A critique of political economy (vol. 1). New York: International Publishers.

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