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What is dialectical materialism?

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The phrase dialectical materialism rarely comes up in conversation; however, it is related to more-commonly discussed concepts such as Marxism, communism, and socialism. According to dialectical materialism, human ideas are purely the result of physical interactions, most especially those related to economics, and are constantly in a process of change. Initial ideas generate contradictions or struggles, which lead to changes, which lead to a new idea. In short, dialectical materialism could be described as evolution as applied to philosophy instead of organisms. Dialectical materialism is the root assumption of Marxist and communist political theories.

The two words in the phrase dialectical materialism carry separate meanings. Materialism is used to describe an approach to philosophy, as well as a lens through which to interpret history. In the philosophical sense, materialism is the belief that only physical entities exist and that all ideas, thoughts, and even minds are simply an effect of physical interactions. The interpretation of evidence or experience through a materialist mindset is referred to as naturalism.

At the same time, materialism is also the name given to a certain approach to history. According to this idea, human life is mostly defined by “producing” the material requirements to survive, such as food and water and shelter. Thus, per historical materialism, human development, government, economics, and so forth are all driven by the fundamental need to survive.

Dialectical materialism incorporates both of these uses of the term materialism.

In philosophy, the word dialectical refers to a pattern of interaction between ideas, where an initial idea results in a response, and these two then re-combine to form a final idea. This is often referred to using the terms thesis (the initial idea), antithesis (the response or contradiction of that idea), and synthesis (the final idea formed by resolving the contradictions). As it applies to dialectical materialism, this idea is particularly tied to the philosophy of G. W. F. Hegel, though Hegel’s dialectic was not materialist.

Dialectical materialism combines all of those major themes: a rejection of the non-material, a claim that economic issues drive all of human history, and the suggestion that all things are constantly evolving through the process of thesis-antithesis-synthesis. Through the writings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, this became the philosophical basis of Marxism and communism.

According to Marx and Engels, all developments of human history have been driven by economic issues. In their view, the transition from agriculture to industry caused most people to lose ownership of their own labor, creating two major classes: the power-and-property-owning bourgeoisie; and the laborers-producers of material goods, the proletariat. Indirectly, the writings of Marx and Engels lay out the structure of what we now call dialectical materialism—an economically focused, atheistic process of thesis-antithesis-synthesis. This process, in Marx and Engles’ view, would result in a transition from capitalism to socialism, which would then evolve into complete communism: the total elimination of all classes and inequities. Through this philosophical lens, they suggested the solution to the flaws of capitalism was to evolve human economics.

Dialectical materialism suffers from several major flaws. First and foremost, it assumes there is no such thing as God or any reality beyond the physical. Beyond being factually false, this approach has proved dangerous due to the results of applying atheism to government. This relates to the second major flaw of dialectical materialism: its naïve assumptions about human nature. In order for a society to actually “evolve” from capitalism to socialism to communism, human beings must act in the best interests of others and never out of selfish desires—a profoundly unrealistic expectation. Third, dialectical materialism assumes that human culture is shaped almost entirely by economics, an idea not well-supported in modern historical or economic studies.

While it may sound sophisticated, dialectical materialism boils down to the same basic idea expressed in biblical passages such as Romans 1:22 and Psalm 14:1. When man attempts to explain truth without God or to interpret history without truth, the end result is disaster. The horrific toll that atheistic and communist governments have taken on mankind is the natural result of assuming that man is nothing but matter and that controlling economics is a means of controlling men.

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This page last updated: September 15, 2023