Trotsky's 'ABC of Materialist Dialectics' is a brilliant short explanation of Marxist philosophy. It was written as part of a defence of Marxism against a middle class revisionist tendency in the American Trotskyist movement in the late 1930s, which attempted to challenge its basic principles. As opposed to pragmatism and empiricism, Trotsky defended dialectical materialism as a richer, fuller, more comprehensive view of society and life in general. Reprinted in 1994 with a new introduction by Rob Sewell.
The dialectic is neither fiction nor mysticism, but a science of the forms of our thinking insofar as it is not limited to the daily problems of life but attempts to arrive at an understanding of more complicated and drawn-out processes. The dialectic and formal logic bear a relationship similar to that between higher and lower mathematics.
I will here attempt to sketch the substance of the problem in a very concise form. The Aristotelian logic of the simple syllogism starts from the proposition that 'A' is equal to 'A'. This postulate is accepted as an axiom for a multitude of practical human actions and elementary generalisations. But in reality 'A' is not equal to 'A'. This is easy to prove if we observe these two letters under a lens - they are quite different from each other. But, one can object, the question is not of the size or the form of the letters, since they are only symbols for equal quantities, for instance, a pound of sugar. The objection is beside the point; in reality a pound of sugar is never equal to a pound of sugar - a more delicate scale always discloses a difference. Again one can object: but a pound of sugar is equal to itself. Neither is this true - all bodies change uninterruptedly in size, weight, colour, etc. They are never equal to themselves. A sophist will respond that a pound of sugar is equal to itself 'at any given moment.'
Aside from the extremely dubious practical value of this 'axiom,' it does not withstand theoretical criticism either. How should we really conceive the word 'moment'? If it is an infinitesimal interval of time, then a pound of sugar is subjected during the course of that 'moment' to inevitable changes. Or is the 'moment a purely mathematical abstraction, that is, a zero of time? But everything exists in time; and existence itself is an uninterrupted process of transformation; time is consequently a fundamental element of existence. Thus the axiom 'A' is equal to 'A' signifies that a thing is equal to itself if it does not change, that is, if it does not exist.
At first glance it could seem that these 'subtleties' are useless. In reality they are of decisive significance. The axiom 'A' is equal to 'A appears on the one hand to be the point of departure for all our knowledge, on the other hand the point of departure for all the errors in our knowledge. To make use of the axiom 'A' is equal to 'A' with impunity is possible only within certain limits. When quantitative changes in 'A' are negligible for the task at hand then we can presume that 'A' is equal to 'A'. This is, for example, the manner in which a buyer and a seller consider a pound of sugar. We consider the temperature of the sun likewise. Until recently we considered the buying power of the dollar in the same way. But quantitative changes beyond certain limits become converted into qualitative. A pound of sugar subjected to the action of water or kerosene ceases to be a pound of sugar. A dollar in the embrace of a president ceases to be a dollar. To determine at the right moment the critical point where quantity changes into quality is one of the most important and difficult tasks in all the spheres of knowledge including sociology.
Every worker knows that it is impossible to make two completely equal objects. In the elaboration of bearing-brass into cone bearings, a certain deviation is allowed for the cones which should not, however, go beyond certain limits (this is called tolerance). By observing the norms of tolerance, the cores are considered being equal. ( 'A' is equal to 'A'.) When the tolerance is exceeded the quantity goes over into quality; in other words, the cone bearings become inferior or completely worthless.
Our scientific thinking is only a part of our general practice including techniques. For concepts there also exist 'tolerance' which is established not by formal logic issuing from the axiom 'A' is equal to 'A', but by dialectical logic issuing from the axiom that everything is always changing. 'Common sense' is characterised by the fact that it systematically exceeds dialectical 'tolerance.'
Vulgar thought operates with such concepts as capitalism, morals, freedom, workers' state, etc. as fixed abstractions, presuming that capitalism is equal to capitalism, morals is equal to morals, etc. Dialectical thinking analyses all things and phenomena in their continuous change, while determining in the material conditions of those changes that critical limit beyond which 'A' ceases to be 'A', a workers' state ceases to be a workers' state.
The fundamental flaw of vulgar thought lies in the fact that it wishes to content itself with motionless imprints of a reality which consists of eternal motion. Dialectical thinking gives to concepts, by means of closer approximations, corrections, concretisations, a richness of content and flexibility; I would say even a succulence which to a certain extent brings them close to living phenomena. Not capitalism in general, but a given capitalism at a given stage of development. Not a workers' state in general, but a given workers' state in a backward country in an imperialist encirclement, etc.
Dialectical thinking is related to vulgar thinking in the same way that a motion picture is related to a still photograph. The motion picture does not outlaw the still photograph but combines a series of them according to the laws of motion. Dialectics does not deny the syllogism, but teaches us to combine syllogisms in such a way as to bring our understanding closer to the eternally changing reality. Hegel in his Logic established a series of laws: change of quantity into quality, development through contradiction, conflict of content and form, interruption of continuity, change of possibility into inevitability, etc., which are just as important for theoretical thought as in the simple syllogism for more elementary tasks.
Hegel wrote before Darwin and before Marx. Thanks to the powerful impulse given to thought by the French Revolution, Hegel anticipated the general movement of science. But because it was only an anticipation, although by a genius, it received from Hegel an idealistic character. Hegel operated with ideological shadows as the ultimate reality. Marx demonstrated that the movement of these ideological shadows reflected nothing but the movement of material bodies.
We call our dialectic, materialist, since its roots are neither in heaven nor in the depths of our 'free will', but in objective reality, in nature. Consciousness grew out of the unconscious, psychology out of physiology, the organic world out of the inorganic, the solar system out of nebulae. On all the rungs of this ladder of development, the quantitative changes were transformed into qualitative. Our thought, including dialectical thought, is only one of the forms of the expression of changing matter. There is place within this system for neither God, nor Devil, nor immortal soul, nor eternal norms of laws and morals. The dialectic of thinking, having grown out of the dialectic of nature, possesses consequently a thoroughly materialist character.
Darwinism, which explained the evolution of species through quantitative transformations passing into qualitative, was the highest triumph of the dialectic in the whole field of organic matter. Another great triumph was the discovery of the table of atomic weights of chemical elements and further the transformation of one element into another.
With these transformations (species, elements, etc.) is closely linked the question of classification, equally important in the natural as in the social sciences. Linnaeus' system (18th century), utilising as its starting point the immutability of species, was limited to the description and classification of plants according to their external characteristics. The infantile period of botany is analogous to the infantile period of logic, since the forms of our thought develop like everything that lives. Only decisive repudiation of the idea of fixed species, only the study of the history of the evolution of plants and their anatomy, prepared the basis for a really scientific classification.
Marx, who in distinction from Darwin was a conscious dialectician, discovered a basis for the scientific classification of human societies in the development of their productive forces and the structure of the relations of ownership which constitute the anatomy of society. Marxism substituted for the vulgar descriptive classification of societies and states, which even up to now still flourishes in the universities, a materialistic dialectical classification. Only through using the method of Marx is it possible correctly to determine both the concept of a workers' state and the moment of its downfall.
All this, as we see, contains nothing 'metaphysical' or 'scholastic', as conceited ignorance affirms. Dialectical logic expresses the laws of motion in contemporary scientific thought. The struggle against materialist dialectics on the contrary expresses a distant past, conservatism of the petty bourgeoisie, the self-conceit of university routinists and ... a spark of hope for an after-life.
15th December, 1939.
Introduction to The ABC of Materialist Dialectics
by Rob Sewell
Over the past period, especially since the collapse of the Berlin Wall, there has been a systematic and vitriolic attack on the ideas of Marxism. From the citadels of higher learning to the pulpit, from free market institutes to the gutter press, a deafening torrent has rained down on the Marxist viewpoint. In order to confuse and disorient the class conscious worker, nothing is spared by the arch defenders of capitalism to discredit scientific socialism. But given that capitalism has meant the return of mass unemployment and the social ills of the inter-war period, a layer of workers and youth are searching for answers to their problems. Increasingly they are driven by the harsh realities of life under capitalism to look for a way out.
Marxism offers thinking workers and youth a clear understanding of society and their place within it. It offers them a new world outlook. It offers them a future. In the words of Lenin, "The Marxian doctrine is omnipotent because it is true. It is complete and harmonious, and provides men with an integral world conception which is irreconcilable with any form of superstition, reaction or defence of bourgeois oppression." (The Three Sources and Three Component Parts of Marxism). The theories of Marxism provide workers with a clear understanding - a thread which is capable of taking him through the confused labyrinth of events, of the turmoil of the class struggle and the complexities of capitalist society.
Marxism was not simply plucked ready-made from Marx's head. Its theories represented a great development of the teachings of the greatest representatives of philosophy, economic thought and socialism. In essence, it was the fusion of German philosophy, English classic economic theory, and the best of French socialism. This combination provided the basis for a revolution in understanding. It was the birth of a new world outlook, enriched and deepened by the historical experience of the working class. It transformed the various trends of utopian socialism into a scientific socialism rooted in society and the class struggle.
Trotsky's 'ABC of Materialist Dialectics' is a brilliant short explanation of Marxist philosophy. It was written as part of a defence of Marxism against a middle class revisionist tendency in the American Trotskyist movement in the late 1930s, which attempted to challenge its basic principles. (See Trotsky's In Defence of Marxism). As opposed to pragmatism and empiricism, Trotsky defended dialectical materialism as a richer, fuller, more comprehensive view of society and life in general.
He explained that the dialectic "is the logic of evolution. Just as a machine shop in a plant supplies instruments for all departments, so logic is indispensable for all spheres of human knowledge... I know of two systems of logic worthy of attention: the logic of Aristotle (formal logic) and the logic of Hegel (the dialectic)."
The ancient Greeks, more than 2,000 years ago, made an outstanding contribution to the development of human thought. They sought to understand the universe, society and man's place within it. As Engels explained, "The ancient Greek philosophers were all natural-born dialecticians and Aristotle, the most encyclopaedic intellect among them, had even already analysed the most essential forms of dialectical thought." They began to see things not as fixed and lifeless, but in their real development and movement. In Heraclitus's words: "Everything is and is not, for everything is in flux, is constantly changing, constantly coming into being and passing away." This graphic description is the basic core of dialectics. This corresponded to Engels view: "For dialectical philosophy nothing is final, absolute, sacred. It reveals the transitory character of everything and in everything: nothing can endure before it except the uninterrupted process of becoming and passing away, of endless ascendancy from the lower to the higher." (Anti-Duhring).
For the Greeks, however, dialectical thought was simply an anticipation. Their major contribution, especially Aristotle, was the development of formal logic, which has held sway for more than two thousand years. Its three basic laws are: law of identity (a thing is always equal to itself, or A equals A); law of contradiction (if a thing is always identical with itself, it cannot be different from itself, or if A equals A, it can never equal non-A); law of excluded middle (everything must be either one of two things; when two opposing statements confront one another, both cannot be true or false; the correctness of one implies the incorrectness of its contrary). These inseparable laws, which were deduced from argument, were the axioms of Aristotle's system of thought.
This conception of reasoning was a huge leap for human thought and understanding and is the basis for our day to day perceptions. On this everyday level, we assume things are static and motionless. And from is point of view, formal logic serves us well. Dialectical understanding, on the other hand, "is not limited to the daily problems of life but attempts to arrive at an understanding of more complicated and drawn-out processes." (Trotsky).
For everyday purposes and simple calculations, formal logic, or "common sense" is sufficient. It has its limits, however, and beyond these the application of "common sense" turns truth into its opposite. At bottom, it is incapable of appreciating change and attempts to rid itself of all contradictions (which are inherent in change). If we attempt to understand more than "everyday things", then formal (or vulgar) logic becomes completely inadequate. "The fundamental flaw of vulgar thought lies in the fact that it wishes to content itself with motionless imprints of a reality which consists of eternal motion." (Trotsky). For everyday purposes, it is possible to say whether a thing is alive or dead. But in reality it is not so simple. At what point is it dead? At what pointed did life begin? It is not a single "event", but a protracted process.
That is not to say that formal logic is useless. On the contrary, it was historically progressive and necessary. This method permitted enormous advances in science and knowledge. However, it reached its limits. Although subordinate to dialectical thought, it is, nevertheless, out of formal logic that dialectics emerged. "Dialectical thought," explained Trotsky, "is related to vulgar thinking in the same way that a motion picture is related to a still photograph. The motion picture does not outlaw the still photograph but combines a series of them according to the laws of motion." However, the truer, more complete approximation of reality is contained in the movie.
These laws of logic, of thought, although used by billions of people, are not necessarily recognised by them as such. For instance, everyone eats according to the definite laws of physiology, but not everyone knows these laws or how they operate. Likewise, in one of Moliere's plays there is a man who learns about prose for the first time. When they explain to him what it is, he exclaims: "Why, I've been speaking prose all my life!"
The limits, however, of formal logic can be clearly seen in relation to evolution. According to the law of identity, a man is essentially a man and nothing else. But we know this not to be the case. According to natural evolution man is an animal. Yet this must be extended to say man is more than an animal; man is a species that is different from all other animals. We are, in reality, two exclusively different things at one and the same time. This is a contradiction that vulgar logic is unable to grasp. Only dialectics can explain this phenomenon.
The contribution of Hegel(1770-1831), the outstanding German philosopher, under the impact of the Great French Revolution, was the development of a new higher system of logic known as dialectics. As already mentioned, the original dialectical thinkers were the ancient Greeks who attempted to understand the universe and man's place in it. But given the low level of science and technique, their outlook was more in the nature of inspired guesses, or anticipations of later developments. Hegel studied the great Greek thinkers and drew out and developed their dialectical method, combining it with later knowledge, and producing a comprehensive analysis of the laws of dialectics.
The fundamental weakness of Hegelian dialectics was that Hegel combined them with a mystical idealist view of life. It was the great contribution of Marx and Engels that purged the dialectical method from its mystical shell. Hegel's dialectic was on its head, believing that the material world was a reflection of a 'Universal Idea' or God. Marx explained, on the contrary, thoughts and ideas were simply the reflection of the material world. So Hegelian dialectics were fused with modern materialism to produce the higher understanding of dialectical materialism.
These laws of dialectical materialism were able to explain things in their development and motion. Whereas formal logic was essentially the logic of lifeless, rigid and static relationships, dialectics was precisely an understanding of real life-processes of motion, contradiction and change.
Everything, according to Engels, "has its existence in eternal coming into being and passing away, in ceaseless flux, in unresting motion and change..." (Dialectics of Nature, p130). Dialectics is the logic of evolution, movement, and change. Its starting point is reality itself. A series of general laws of dialectics, outlined by Hegel, centred around the law of quantity into quality (and of quality into quantity), the unity of opposites, and the negation of the negation, which operate throughout the material world. Each one is organically linked to the others.
These laws, however, are not all-embracing and eternal. As Trotsky explained: "Dialectical materialism is not of course an eternal and immutable philosophy. To think otherwise is to contradict the spirit of the dialectic. Further development of scientific thought will undoubtedly create a more profound doctrine into which dialectical materialism will enter merely as structural material."(In Defence of Marxism, p76). We have already noticed that dialectical thought had its basic origins 2,000 years ago, were systematically developed by Hegel, and then further deepened by Marx and Engels. At this time, modern materialist dialectics are the closest understanding and approximation to reality, fully appreciating all its internal contradictions.
"Dialectics gives expression to a law which is felt in all grades of consciousness and in general experience," stated Hegel. "Everything that surrounds us may be viewed as an instance of dialectic. We are aware that everything finite, instead of being inflexible, is rather changeable and transient; and this is exactly what we mean by the dialectic of the finite, by which the finite, as implicitly other than it is, is forced to surrender its own immediate or natural being, and turn suddenly into its opposite." (Encyclopaedia, p128)
Movement and change results from causes inherent in processes and things, from internal contradictions. These contradictory tendencies within phenomena represent, in reality, a unity of opposites. The opposites are bound together in a relation of mutual dependence, where each is a condition of existence of the other. In class society, for instance, the class antagonisms between the exploiters and exploited is a fundamental aspect. One cannot exist without the other. This contradiction is the driving force of change. However, these contradictions are not static, but in the process of working themselves out. The overthrow of class society will lead to the abolition of classes themselves. New contradictions will inevitably unfold, but will be of a fundamentally different character, on a new higher level. As Lenin remarked that "antagonism and contradiction are utterly different. Under socialism antagonism disappears, but contradiction remains." (Critical Notes on Bukharin's Economics of the Transition Period). The elements of antagonism and conflict between men disappear and give way to conscious and harmonious planning of society. Contradictions remain, but as they no longer take the form of class antagonisms they do not require the forcible domination of one set of material interests over another.
Change takes place not in a straight line, and continuous gradual smooth development, but in leaps and revolutions. All change has a quantitative element, but this reaches a certain point, when the gradual changes give rise to a qualitative leap forward. Something new is born, entirely different from before. To explain developments we need to study the facts. "The dialectic is not a magic master key for all questions," explained Trotsky. "It does not replace concrete scientific analysis. But it directs this analysis along the correct road, securing it against sterile wanderings in the desert of subjectivism and scholasticism." (In Defence of Marxism, p52).
Change is not simply a repetition of the past. The working out of contradictions does not mean that earlier stages of development are repeated exactly, but develop on a higher level. This is one of the most general laws of dialectics, the negation of the negation. An "extremely far reaching and important law" says Engels. Motion, change and development move through an uninterrupted series of negations. But the past is not totally obliterated, but overcome and preserved at the same time. Features of the past may reappear, but in a new and enriched form. As Marx explained, capitalism arose through the ruination of pre-capitalist individual producers (its negation). The abolition of capitalism (its negation) is carried through, individual property of producers is restored, but on a higher level. The producer, as a participant in socialised production, then enjoys, as his individual property, a share of the social product.
The task of Marxism is to lay bare the real contradictions and processes unfolding in society, economy and politics. To draw a clear distinction between the appearance and the essence of things. To uncover the truth. Only by doing this will the working class, and in particular its advanced layers, see clearly its historic task and mission.
Yet, as we explained before, there are obstacles in the path of the worker's struggle for theory and understanding far more intractable than the scribblings of priests and professors. A man or woman who is obliged to toil long hours in industry, who has not had the benefit of a decent education and consequently lacks the habit of reading, finds great difficulty in absorbing some of the more complex ideas, especially at the outset. Yet it was for workers that Marx and Engels wrote, and not for 'clever' students and middle class people. 'Every beginning is difficult' no matter what science we are talking about. Marxism is a science and therefore makes heavy demands upon the beginner. But every worker who is active in the trade unions or Labour Party knows that nothing is worthwhile if attained without a degree of struggle and sacrifice. It is the activists in the Labour Movement at whom the present pamphlet is aimed. To the active worker who is prepared to persevere. One promise can be made: once the initial effort is made to come to grips with unfamiliar and new ideas, the theories of Marxism will be found to be basically straight forward and simple. Moreover - and this should be emphasised - the worker who acquires by patient effort an understanding of Marxism will turn out to be a better theoretician than most students, just because he or she can grasp the ideas not merely in the abstract, but concretely, as applied to his or her own life and work.
In the final analysis, Marxist philosophy is a guide to action. "Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is, however, to change it." (Karl Marx, Theses on Feurbach).
Rob Sewell, 18 April, 1994.