Monday, November 20, 2017

Marx's Dialectical Approach and Materialist Interpretation of History

Marx's Dialectical Approach

      The dialectical approach was borrowed by Karl Marx from the German philosopher Hegel.  It is based on the idea that the ultimate nature of all reality is change.  All reality, in this approach, is based on the coexistence of incompatible forces.  (In Marxian language, these incompatible forces are called “contradictions”.)  Every aspect of reality generates its opposite.  The aspect of reality is called the “thesis”; the opposite is called the “antithesis”.  The thesis and the antithesis are incompatible.  This leads to conflict.  The conflict is finally somehow resolved.  This resolution is called the “synthesis”.  (Neither Marx nor Hegel ever used these exact terms.)  The synthesis becomes a new thesis, which then generates its own antithesis, and so on in a process of continual change.  Marx adapted this thinking to the study of history and to the focus on social classes.

Marx's Materialist Interpretation of History

     In general, there are three approaches to the interpretation of history.  The “Great Person Approach” focuses on the activities of certain leaders --- monarchs, Presidents, criminals, and so forth. The idealist approach interprets historical change as resulting from changes in people’s ideas. In this approach, changes in ideas (religious, political, or economic) cause changes in behaviors, institutions, and so forth.  Marx rejected both of these approaches.  To Marx’s materialist approach, history evolves according to changes in the mode of production. 

          “In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of development of  their material productive forces.  The sum total of these relations of production constitute the economic structure of society, on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness.  The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political, and intellectual process in general.  It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.” (A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy)

     In Chapter 2, the individual person was seen as most important. Both liberal market capitalism and parliamentary democracy are based on the notion of the primacy of the individual.  But to Marx, the individual was nothing more than the “ensemble of social relations”. There is no basic person.  What one becomes is the product of one’s society.  So, for Marx, the society is the focus of analysis.  Most particularly, the focus of analysis is one’s social class.  To Marx, social class is not to be defined according to one’s income. So there was no lower class, middle class, and upper class. Instead, one’s social class is determined by one’s relation to capital goods.  Those who own capital are called “capitalists”.  Those who do not own capital, and therefore must sell their labor to others who do, are called “workers”.  Marx used the French words:  the capitalists are called the “bourgeoisie” and the workers are called the “proletariat” (see for example in The Communist Manifesto).