Friday, June 12, 2009

Communism 101: Dialectical Materialism

Chapter 1: Overview
Chapter 2: Labor, Cost and Value
Chapter 3: Dialectical Materialism

I'm supposedly talking about communism, and the first thing I do is jump into a wonky, geeky analysis of economics. We'll get back to economics in the next chapter, but first I want to talk about why economics is important.

Marx's great insight was that our social relations, both those that directly govern our economic behavior as well as those that govern our non-economic interpersonal relationships, are in some sense material entities that are the results of material causes. This materialism stands in contrast to the view that our social relations are a matter of somehow finding the right independently existing idealistic principles and somehow "adhering" to those principles.

As best I understand it, specifically dialectical materialism is the proposition that substantive change and novel emergent behavior of a system is the result of contradictory forces in the substrate of the system. In physics, for example, the contradictory forces are a quantum's particle nature (thesis) and its wave nature (antithesis). The interaction between these forces produces novel emergent behavior, i.e. motion (synthesis). If a quantum were just a particle, it would just sit there; if it were just a wave, it would just be smeared out across the whole universe.

This paradigm of dialectical materialism of change and novel emergent behavior resulting from internal contradictions can be applied at "higher" levels of abstraction: thermodynamics, temperature and pressure are the result of the molecules bouncing off of one another, the contradiction that two molecules can't be at the same place at the same time. Evolution results from the contradiction between random chance and physically determined natural selection, as well as the contradiction between predator and prey: to survive and reproduce the predator must eat but the prey must not be eaten; this "arms race" drives a lot of specific evolutionary change.

We also see that the the synthesis feeds back to the thesis and antithesis. At the quantum level, motion changes the position and momentum of the quantum's particle nature, and changes the shape and character of its wavefunction. At higher levels of abstraction, the synthesis can actually change not just the details and manner of expression but also the fundamental character of the thesis and antithesis.

Economics is important because human social relations are primarily driven by economic considerations. We spend the vast majority of our life either working or consuming the products of our work. Our social relations are driven by necessity to correspond with the physical way we work and consume.

Applying the paradigm of dialectical materialism to economics, we want to look for some sort of contradictions that produce novel emergent behavior, especially where the emergent behavior somehow feeds back into the contradictory dialectical forces, in detail, expression and character. Dialectical materialism is a paradigm: we're looking not so much for specific experiments that would falsify the idea, but rather a "natural" and unforced way of using dialectical materialism to generate falsifiable theories about the world. (Paradigms are typically general enough that we can fit most any sort of theory into any sort of paradigm, but a "bad" paradigm requires weird and elaborate mental contortions to accommodate theories. Phlogiston could accommodate experiment, for example, but at the cost of adding the weird concept of negative mass.)

The communist canon identifies several contradictions, both in ordinary science as well as economic behavior, but I'm unsatisfied with their analysis; I will therefore resign myself to the sin of originality, with the concomitant danger of being originally wrong (or unwittingly unoriginal).

First, we have to identify the fundamental contradictions of economic behavior in general, those that are conserved across different economic systems. Some of these contradictions seem obvious. First, there is the contradiction between effort and result: we don't want to work, but we do want results, such as eating and staying dry in the rain, and we must work to achieve those results. This is a real contradiction, not trivially reconcilable or solvable, that produces novel emergent behavior, i.e. various social systems, science and technology. There's a contradiction between our desire for autonomy and privacy, and our desire and need for cooperation and socialization.

When we get into commodity relations, there's the contradiction that each side of an exchange wants to offer as little as possible and get as much as possible in return; there's a dimension in which any exchange is a zero-sum game with the participants mutually antagonistic. (There are other dimensions to exchange that are not zero-sum and the participants cooperative, but the dimension of "exchange efficiency" seems obviously present.)

Not all contradictions are so fundamental and invariant, of course. When we get into the details of the social relations, there are contradictions between what is desired or necessary for production, and what is actually available, and it's often a contradiction between what is abundant and what is necessary that drives social change. For example, the development of agriculture made food production more efficient, creating an abundance of surplus labor, labor not necessary for survival and reproduction. This abundance made slavery economically viable; the contradiction between the abundance of surplus labor and the lack of desire for it in hunter-gatherer economic relations created slave-oriented economic relations, the state, and large-scale social structures.


  1. Nothing of what you said above will be countermanded by the point I have by way of--I suppose in the more proper sense--commentary.

    First, I think it important to highlight the sense of "contradiction" that Marx is adopting by way of Hegel. In my own work on this, I contrast Hegel's sense of contradiction with Kant's, but it just as easily could have been Aristotle or anyone between the two. For Kant, "contradiction" is both propositional and discursive; that is to say, contradictoriness is a property of clearly articulable statements, i.e., "p and ~p." Hegel's interpretation of (some would say his insight about) contradiction is that (a) it is more broadly considered as self-defeat and (b) the Kantian (traditional) concept of contradiction is a proper subset of the self-defeating. Thus the goal of every one of Hegel's post-Phenomenology works are committed to finding some non-self-defeating form of whatever is under consideration. For Marx, communism is the only non-self-defeating economic system. Hence "contradiction" with regard to dialectical materialism ought to be construed as self-defeat and not simply "inconsistent."

  2. As I've noted before, dialectical materialism is a complicated and subtle concept, that I don't feel I understand at all clearly or completely. The "101" in the title of the theme refers as much to my own status as a beginner as to the status of the intended audience.

  3. A very good post, of course. Thanks.

    I would like to just ramble on a bit about the concept of "contradictions."

    In terms of Hegel, the concept was basically a philosophical one, as discussed by Skoteinos.

    Marx's strength was to take this concept into the material sphere. So, "contradictions" refers to conflicts over material things - in social terms, of course, access to the means of production. So, the contradictions of capitalism refers to the conflicts over material goods between social groups (i.e. classes, of course.)(Created by and creating all the relations of power and ideology that go with these things.)

    I am not sure what Skoteinos means by "self-defeat". From my half-remembered Sociology 101 (plus similar courses too far beyond that to do much good for my employability) conflict between classes is pretty constant. The winners are the ones who get control of production at any one point. I can't see that a concept of self-defeat is built into the system analysis.

    Marx, being an optimistically utopian 19th century chap, assumed that the workers would gain control of production - through winning at the conflict thing - and wealth would be shared out more fairly.

    Of course, nothing worked out quite like that, but I think it's unfair to confuse Marx's 19th century dream of "communism" with any given social system. Marx was just a man.

    Of course the secret of the universe doesn't lie in his political writings. But. Marx's basic materialist approach to analysing social relations - as developed by him and modified by thousands of other people - still holds up pretty well.

    When it comes to looking at global financial chaos, it certainly pisses all over the wishful thinking economic models that have been accepted as gospel.


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