Every scientific investigation must have a method. The choice of method will affect the whole course of the investigation and it is important to base your method on the reality of the situation you are studying. The method used by Marxists in studying the world around them is Dialectical Materialism.
The materialists of the eighteenth century were heavily influenced by the major scientific advances of their era. These were primarily in the mechanical and chemical sciences. The biological sciences were only examined and explained in terms of mechanical causes. The other major defect of scientific thought at the time was that, except for mechanical interactions, it studied the world as a collection of static objects taken apart from their interconnections. Both of these problems were reflected in the materialism of the time.
This was inevitable in the course of scientific development. In the words of Engels, “it was necessary to examine things before it was possible to examine the processes. One first had to know what a particular thing was before one could observe the changes going on in connection with it; natural science up to the end of the last century was predominantly a collecting science, science of finished things; in our century it is essentially a classifying science, a science of the processes, of the origin and development of these things and of the interconnection which binds all these natural processes into one great whole.”
Dialectical Materialism is the reflection, in philosophy, of this scientific revolution and its first premise is that all things must be studied in the context of their interconnections and interdependencies.
The term dialectics was used by the Ancient Greeks to refer to a style of debating in which a philosopher would expose the contradictions in an opponent’s argument then overcome them. Dialectics in the sense in which it is used by Marxists today has a slightly wider definition. It is the “study of the contradiction within the essence of things” (Lenin).
The world is made up of matter in motion. All matter from the most complex right down to the smallest subatomic particle known today, is in motion. This has been shown to be the case by rigorous scientific investigation. Indeed matter without motion is as inconceivable as motion without matter.
Similarly, all matter contains contradictory sides which make up its unity. It is the development and balance of forces in these contradictions which drive forward its motion. Take, for example, a seed from a tree. The seed, from the very beginning of its existence, contains a contradiction. Somewhere deep within is the beginnings of a new tree which, in time, will devour the nutrients that make up the rest of the seed. Thus the tree from the seed negates the seed itself, resolving the contradiction.
There are several general rules which govern the development of contradictions in nature. It must be emphasised that these are very general rules which pick out important features of dialectical development. They are true because they occur in the natural world, not vice-versa.
Hegel, the first philosopher to recognise these rules, made the mistake, upon finding them at work in the human mind, of assuming that they were laws of thought and that, where nature could be explained dialectically, it was conforming to these intellectual laws. He thus failed to recognise that the laws which govern our thought processes are merely reflections of the laws at work in nature.
The first is that quantitative changes can lead to qualitative changes and vice-versa. Small, imperceptible changes in quantity can lead to fundamental changes in the nature of things. Consider the periodic table of elements. All are made up of protons, neutrons and electrons. A simple change in the number of one of these subatomic particles could completely change the substance. Similarly, a quantitative change in the temperature of an amount of water can change it from a solid, to a liquid, to a gas and back again. This pattern is repeated in many natural and social processes.
The next rule concerns negation. Traditionally, when we think of something being negated, we consider it as the end of a process. However, dialectically, every end is a beginning. When a contradiction is resolved by the negation of one part by the other, the negating part carries within it its own negation, the beginnings of a new contradiction. This is what is referred to as the negation of the negation. This is not simply a return to the original phase but a progression to something higher, which may contain elements of both the original and its negation but which is entirely new in essence.
Armed with Dialectical Materialism as a growing, living analytical tool, we can study the world around us and, in doing so, inform our revolutionary theory and practice.