Dialectical Materialism and Historical Dialectics of Karl Marx

Research Paper (undergraduate), 2011

12 Pages, Grade: A


Table of contents







Karl Marx was born in 1818, at Treves in Germany. Treves had been influenced by the French during the revolutionary and Napoleonic era hence, it was much cosmopolitan than most parts of Germany. Marx’s ancestors had been rabbis though his parents became Christians when he was a child. Karl Marx married a gentile aristocrat. At the University he was influenced by Hegelianism. He also tried journalism but the Rhenische Zeitung1 , a radical publication was suppressed by the authorities. In 1843, he went to France to study socialism. There, he met Engels, the manager of a factory in Manchester. From him, he came to know of English labor conditions and English economics. After taking part in the French and German revolutions of 1848, he sought refuge in England in 1849 from where he wrote and amassed knowledge. The stimulus to his work was the hope of a social revolution in his lifetime or in future. Unlike British classical economics who aimed at the welfare of the capitalists, Marx worked to represent the interest of the wage earner. This is best represented in the Communist Manifesto of 1848.2 Marx called himself a materialist, though under Hegelian influence. This paper seeks to explain Karl Marx’s dialectical materialism and historical dialectics.

Before delving into dialectical materialism and historical dialectics as espoused by Karl Marx, it is important to explain something about the Hegelian dialectic method. G.W.F Hegel (1770-1831) begins the argument of his logic by the assumption that ‘the Absolute is Pure Being’; we assume that it just is, without assigning any qualities to it. Pure Being without any qualities is nothing; therefore we are led to the antithesis: ‘The Absolute is Nothing’. From this thesis and antithesis we pass on to the synthesis; the union of Being and Not-Being is becoming, and so we say: ‘The Absolute is Becoming’3.

This process is essential to the understanding of the result. Each later stage of the dialectic contains all the earlier stages. None is wholly4 superseded, but is given its proper place as a moment in the whole. It is therefore impossible to reach the truth except by going through all the steps of the dialectic. We shall see this dialectic as having influenced Karl Marx’s philosophy.

The seeds of Marx’s theory of history were present in the Manuscripts of 1844, but achieved their final form after research into the science of political economy in polemical writings such as the Communist Manifesto (1848) and The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte5 . For Marx, Hegelian philosophies of history and Hegelian theory of self-consciousness were inextricable.

Marx’s lifework consisted it the attempt to overcome the intellectual difficulties that stood in the way of expressing Hegel’s vision ‘materialistically’. Marx’s philosophy was later to be called ‘dialectical materialism’. Of his influence by Feuerbach, Marx in his work ‘founded genuine materialism and positive science by making the social relationship of “man to man” the basic principle of his theory.’6 Karl Marx argued that only man has species-life since only man finds his nature, through the recognition of himself as a social, and therefore socially determined, being.

According to Marx’s theory of self-consciousness therefore, the self is constituted only through its social essence which was a material and not a spiritual reality like in Hegel. This essence resides in the collective activity which Marx was to identify as ‘labor’7. From this conception, Marx derived his Theory of history. We shall first explain Marx’s dialectical materialism and then his historical materialism.


Karl Marx is a reviver of materialism giving it a new interpretation and a new connection with human history. But what is dialectical materialism? To understand this, it is important to first of all define dialectic and also materialism. Dialectic8 in philosophy is the art of discovering and telling truths in discussion and logical argument. Materialism9 on the other hand is the theory or belief that only material things exist.

Dialectical materialism, in Marxist Theory argues that political and historical events are due to the conflict of social forces caused by man’s material needs. Marx called himself a materialist. In his view, all sensation or perception is an interaction between subject and object; the bare object, apart from the activity of the percipient, is a mere raw material, which is transformed in the process of being known. Knowledge in the old sense of passive contemplation is an unreal abstraction; the process that really takes place is one of handling things.10

Dialectical materialism is an abstraction of general laws of change that takes place in the physical world of nature. It postulates that the perpetual change occurring among natural phenomena follows certain designed scientific laws which operate on a linear pattern in the form of thesis, then antithesis to form a synthesis which then becomes a new thesis.

This philosophy borrowed from Hegel, goes that, contradictory things in nature, change nature. Hegel had argued that in contradictions in nature, man strives to higher stages of purity. Therefore, in material nature, before a new thesis is formed, the old must be destroyed. The synthesis thus formed, is the new thesis.

In interpreting Marx, the process which philosophers have called the pursuit of knowledge is not constant. Subject and object, knower and the thing known, are in a continual process of mutual adaptation. Marx calls this process ‘dialectical’ because it is never fully completed. Essential to this theory is to deny the reality of ‘sensation’ as conceived by British empiricists.

What happens, and what they mean by ‘sensation’, would be better called ‘noticing’, which implies activity. Marx would contend that we only notice things as part of the process of acting with reference to them, and any theory which leaves out action is a misleading abstraction.11

Stemming from Hegelian contradictions, in Marx’s dialectics, three main contradictions take place. In the first contradiction, there is the exchange of or interaction between man and nature in the social aspect of labor. For example, new material results from two old materials. In the second contradiction, it starts with appearance of contradiction between new productive forces and old productive forces. The third contradiction results from contradiction between new product relations and the old superstructure.


1 Bertrand Russell; A History of Western Philosophy , 2004; Pg. 706.

2 Ibid, Pg. 707

3 Roger Scruton, A Short History On Modern Philosophy , 2002, Pg. 221

4 Ibid, Pg. 222

5 Ibid, Pg. 221

[6] Ibid, Pg. 223

7 Bertrand Russell, A History Of Western Philosophy , 2004, Pg. 664

8 Cowie, A.P (Ed); Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary of Current Philosophy , 1992; Pg. 331

9 Ibid, Pg. 768

10 Op. Cit, Pg. 707

11 Ibid, Pg. 708

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Dialectical Materialism and Historical Dialectics of Karl Marx
University of Nairobi
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dialectical, dialectics, historical, karl, marx, materialism
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Mbogo Wa Wambui (Author), 2011, Dialectical Materialism and Historical Dialectics of Karl Marx, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/703506


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