Dialectical Materialism: The Science of Marxism Explained

Ramiro Sebastián Fúnez

These are the words that anti-communists typically use when attempting to describe Marxism and its central tenets.

Guided by misinformed perceptions about Karl Marx and the body of science he pioneered, these critics associate the collapse of the former Soviet Union with the collapse of Marxist science as a whole. They claim Marx’s ideas are irrelevant because a major socialist country carrying out his ideas was dismantled by counter-revolutionaries.

“It looks good on paper, but it doesn’t work out in reality,” his critics often say. “It’s human nature to be greedy — that’s why capitalism will always win.”

Perhaps the biggest error committed is failing to properly study Marx’s writings and those of his ideological successors — Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong, among thousands of others. Instead, they rely solely on watered-down interpretations by bourgeois “scholars” who misread Marx and have never done anything tangible for the world.

If you were to walk into any major social science department in a U.S. or European university, you’d be hard-pressed to find a professor who has read at least half of Marx’s writings. Most have only read superficial critiques of his ideas.

This is troubling, considering that Marx has been regarded numerous times as the world’s most influential scholar. His writings have inspired countless revolutions around the world and have shaped the course of modern history.

In an era where liberalism, conservatism and religion — the dominant trends of thought — are unable to explain global economic, political, social and environmental crises, the need to resuscitate Marxism becomes more urgent than ever.

The best place to start is dialectical materialism, the body of science established by Marx and his lifelong ideological contributor, Friedrich Engels.

Dialectical materialism can best be summed up as an approach to understanding and changing objective reality, both in nature and society. Let’s break down what it means.


Materialism is a philosophical view where matter is the primary and determinant substance in the natural world. All things, including ideas and consciousness, are a result of interactions between matter. Simply put, the material world determines consciousness.

Marx elaborated on this concept in “The German Ideology” while Lenin explained it in his “Materialism and Empirio-Criticism.” Here’s a quick synopsis.

You’ve probably heard the frequently-asked question, “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” Materialists answer this question with a “yes.” That’s because they understand that consciousness and perception is secondary to material interaction.

The brain, the figurative traffic control center of the human nervous system and sensory organs, acquires knowledge about a particular thing through sense perception. Sense perception allows consciousness to be developed about that particular thing we are feeling, seeing, hearing, or tasting. For example, the sound of a tree falling enters our ear canal, then it is instantaneously processed by our brain and then we become conscious that a tree has fallen.

Thus, it is the interactions between ears, brains and trees — all physical things which occupy material space — that allow us to understand that a tree has fallen. Even if no one is around to hear the tree falling, it will still make a sound, given that it is interacting with other material objects, like the earth’s surface.

Materialists also posit, for example, that the earth was still orbiting around the sun prior to humans discovering that fact. The earth didn’t begin orbiting around the sun in the 16th Century, when the model of heliocentrism was scientifically introduced and when humans first had consciousness of a solar system. It began millions of years prior to that, independent of human thought.

Overall, materialism maintains that interactions between material substances in reality determine ideas and consciousness — not the other way around, as idealism holds. Idealism, which argues that ideas determine material reality, is prevalent in liberalism, conservatism and religion.

In liberalism, it takes the form of the “peace can be achieved if we put our ideological differences aside” argument. In conservatism, it takes the form of the “you can be rich if you work hard enough” argument. In religion, it takes the form of the “you’ll go to heaven if you pray hard enough” argument.

All of these arguments fail to take into consideration material conditions that must be first evaluated to determine whether these possibilities can even happen.

Peace can’t be achieved between two warring sides if one side has more money, weapons and control than the other. One can’t become rich if they don’t have the initial capital to invest in a business, which is the case for most of the world’s population. One can’t go to heaven if it has never existed.

Materialism isn’t guided by illusions. It’s guided by science and objective reality.

The Dialectic

The dialectic is a philosophical method of understanding the way things are and how they change. Marx and Engels adopted the dialectical method of their ideological predecessor, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, and updated it with a materialist understanding of reality.

Grounded in scientific principles applied in quantum mechanics and astronomy, the dialectic maintains that all things that exist in the universe are interconnected processes in constant motion. Simply put, we live in a universe of processes, not “things.”

This method stands in stark contradiction to metaphysics, which abstractly analyzes processes that exist in the universe as isolated matter frozen in time.

Liberalism, conservatism and religion are all steeped in metaphysical thought.

Take humans as an example.

A metaphysical approach to studying human development takes the average human being as they are now and acts like they’ve been this way from “the beginning.” Hence, the “greed is human nature” argument used to justify the current darwinistic capitalist system, entirely ignoring the thousands of years of communalism that existed prior to capitalism and feudalism.

It also separates humans from their environments and makes value judgements about them, acting as though they exist outside of their immediate surroundings. This includes universally judging humans for stealing food, not taking into account that a small minority of them live in places where food is plentiful while a vast majority live in places where it’s scarce.

A dialectical approach to studying human development recognizes that humans are extensions of nature and are constantly evolving and changing based on their material conditions. Thus, it’s ideologically bankrupt to create universal value judgements about humans while different standards of living exist.

Aside from the understanding that all things that exist in the universe are interconnected processes in constant motion, there are three central laws of the dialectic: 1) The unity of opposites, 2) The passage of quantitative changes into qualitative changes, 3) The negation of the negation.

The law of the unity of opposites maintains that all processes that exist in the universe contain two contradictory elements that form a larger totality. Although these two elements are diametrically opposed to one another, they are also co-dependent on each other.

Within every atom, for example, there exist electrons, which emit negative charges, and protons, which emit positive charges. While these atomic components are complete opposites in their composition and function, both are needed to form the totality of an atom.

A diagram detailing atomic structure. | Source: PhysicsClassroom.com

In Hegel’s “Science of Logic,” he expressed this dialectical relationship using the “thesis, antithesis, synthesis” triad model. Using the example of an atom, electrons could represent the thesis, protons could represent the antithesis and atoms as a whole could represent the synthesis. The totality of an atom results from electrons and protons coming together.

Engels discussed this in his “Dialectics of Nature” and Mao mentioned this in his “On Contradiction.” Additionally, in each dialectical relationship between polar opposites, one element is dominant over another.

The law of the passage of quantitative changes into qualitative changes states that when one component of a particular process increases in quantity and becomes the dominant component, a qualitative shift occurs in the totality of the process.

Let’s go back to the example of atoms.

If electrons in a particular atom increase in quantity, the atom’s overall charge will become negative. If protons in that same atom replace electrons as the dominant component, it will become positive.

The domination of one component (thesis) over another component (antithesis) creates a new process with a qualitatively different composition (synthesis). Within the synthesis, elements of both the original thesis and antithesis can be observed, with the former dominating the latter.

If you throw a cup of hot water into a bucket of cold water, for example, the water in the bucket will become a bit warmer, but will remain cold for the most part.

The law of the negation of the negation explains the cycle of development that all processes undergo, in line with the thesis-antithesis-synthesis model.

It maintains that all processes come into being, wither away and later come back in a new, higher and evolved form. This cycle doesn’t end at the exact point where it started, as it would if its trajectory of motion were a circle. It ends up in a new, higher and evolved position, as it moves in the shape of a spiral.

If this sounds confusing, let’s go back to trees for a moment to illuminate this third law of dialectics.

A tree comes into being in the form of a seed that grows in the soil and eventually becomes tall and strong. The same tree, however, eventually withers away, dropping its seeds on the soil it’s planted on. Eventually, the seeds produced by the one dying tree can create 20 trees in its place. Thus, the creation of 20 trees negates the negation (or withering away) of the first tree.

Life cycle of a tree. | Source: ShowMe.com

Essentially, something becomes its opposite, establishing the first negation. Then, it becomes its opposite again, but in a new, higher and evolved position.

This is the negation of the negation and we see it happen everyday of our lives — like when night becomes day and day becomes night.

Historical Materialism: The Application of Dialectical Materialism to Society

Up to this point, we’ve studied dialectical materialism as it’s applied to nature — sound, atomic structure, botany, etc.

Marx and his ideological successors, however, most famously applied dialectical materialism to society, developing the theory of historical materialism. Marx summed up this theory in his landmark work, “Capital: Critique of Political Economy,” with the following quote: “Revolution is the midwife of every old society, which is pregnant with a new one.”

Revolution can be defined as the forcible overthrow of a social order in favor of a new system.

Through the application of dialectical materialist analysis to society, Marx found that revolutions serve as the locomotives of history. Simply put, revolutions move history from one era to another.

Marx divides the entirety of human history into six eras: primitive communism, slave society, feudalism, capitalism and socialism. Within each era, a change in material conditions gives rise to increased conflict between two opposing classes, resulting in one overturning the other and the ushering in of a new era of society.


During primitive communism, also known as communalism, humans lived in tribal units that depended on hunting and gathering and did not adhere to private property. This era lasted for thousands of years and forms the majority of humanity’s history. As material conditions changed in ways that facilitated the rise of farming tools and weapons technology, however, a new class of property owners arose. These property owners then began conquering other tribal units, introducing the rule of slave owners and slave society as a whole.

During slave society, which lasted from roughly 4000 B.C. to about 900 A.D. (depending on the region), world powers like the Roman, Macedonian and Achaemenid empires were ruled by slave owners on a quest to conquer humans and resources. This was the beginning of what is known as class society as a whole. However, as disease, infrastructure decay, rising poverty levels and Christianity (which opposed the development of science and technology) became commonplace within these empires, they began to decline. Thus, the rule of kings, queens, clergy and the nobility replaced these slave empires, oppressing feudal serfs (former slaves) who worked their land.

During feudalism, which lasted from about 900 A.D. to roughly the late 19th Century (also depending on the region), kings, queens, clergy and the nobility ruled the world in small units of feudal territories. Nations did not yet exist and feudal serfs were confined to regional estates where they worked in exchange for food and housing.

The technological advancements of the European Renaissance, however, which was grounded on the “discovery” and colonization of the “New World,” introduced the rise of port cities where stolen goods from the Third World were brought in. Consequently, a new class of oppressors, known as capitalists, began industrializing coastal areas and developed urban settlements, where feudal serfs fled to in order to begin working in factories. Urban liberal capitalists replaced conservative and religious feudal landlords as the ruling class. Phenomenon like the Industrial Revolution was their impetus.

Under capitalism, our current era of society, capitalists rule over a world carved up into artificially-constructed borders that form nations-states. Capitalists are rich people who exploit workers and control the world’s production in order to advance their wealth. Most of them live in the First World (North America and Europe) and exploit workers in the Third World (Asia, Africa and Latin America).

Capitalists, known as the bourgeoisie, live off of stolen value produced by workers, known as the proletariat, who overwhelmingly make up the majority of the world’s population. However, Marx, Lenin and countless other communist revolutionaries have correctly pointed out that with only a finite amount of resources and workers to exploit in the world, the rule of the capitalists will eventually come crashing down. It is at this point that the proletariat will launch revolution, replace the bourgeoisie as the ruling class and seize control of the world’s production, ushering in a new and sixth stage of humanity: socialism.

Under socialism — which has already been witnessed in places like the Soviet Union, Cuba, China, etc. — class struggle by the ruling proletariat against the bourgeoisie continues. As production becomes centralized in the hands of workers and as poverty is eliminated, material conditions change, giving way to the long march toward global communism.

Communism is described as a stateless and classless society that succeeds socialism — it can take hundreds, if not thousands of years to reach full communism. Communism is a higher and more developed form of the communalism that existed thousands of years ago. Overall, communism will be the negation of the negation of communalism.

Within this broad sketch of historical materialism, one can see elements of dialectical materialism applied to society.

Materialism demonstrates that changes in material conditions lead to social revolutions, forcing society into new eras of struggle between two contending classes. This has been the case in all preceding eras of society. For example, humans didn’t wake up one day and decide to become capitalists and introduce a whole new way of organizing society. The Industrial Revolution and changes in the material world thrust them into that position, which they gladly accepted.

Also, the dialectic explains the nature of these societal changes, especially as it relates to their composition and motion. Here are a few examples.

The dialectical understanding that the universe is comprised of interconnected processes in constant motion explains how society transitions from one era to another in constant ebbs and flows. During the transition from feudalism to capitalism, for example, elements of both societies were seen. There wasn’t an exact date when humans announced, “We’ve officially left the era of feudalism and have now officially begun capitalism.”

At the beginning of this transition, feudalism was dominant and the seeds of capitalism were manifesting. At the end of this transition, capitalism was dominant and the ashes of feudalism were withering away.

The dialectical law of the unity of opposites also explains how within each era of society, two diametrically opposed classes are dependent on each other. Just as you can’t have hot without cold or day without night, you can’t have capitalists without workers. Each class identifies itself in relation to its opposite class.

Finally, the dialectical law of the negation of the negation explains how humans are and have been transitioning from communalism to class society (slavery, feudalism, capitalism) to socialism and communism. Class society was the negation of communalism, but socialism and communism will be the negation of class society, thus negating the negation. And, as mentioned before, socialism and communism will represent a higher and more developed stage of communalism, as it moves in the trajectory of an upward spiral.

In summation, dialectical materialism is the science of Marxism that produced the theory of historical materialism, which serves as a guide to what’s possible for humanity. Ultimately, it is a guide for carrying out global revolution and liberating the workers and oppressed peoples of the world, especially in the Third World.