Marx’s Dialectics & Mechanics of History: A Repair Manual for Society

Dialectics, Contradictions, Historical Materialism, and Karl Marx

Karl Marx never invented anything called Marxism. And communism was described by a French guy named Victor D’Hupay 41 years before Marx was born. Despite the cold war having ended in 1989, the labels Marxist, socialist, and communist are still most often used in US news-media as slurs to discredit people whom the commentariat dislike. The so-called American “left” mostly shuns them and the 4chan pseudo-intellectuals of the alt-Reich ensure the search results stay drenched in paranoid memes about the supposed danger of “cultural Marxism” ( a fear-mongering tactic that originated with the Nazis, by the way ). The sad truth is that very few people seem to know anything about what Marx actually talked about — and this is especially true of those who most loudly denounce “Marxism.”

In any case, this post is meant to be for everyone. If you just want to learn the gist of what Marx was saying, you will find that below — or, if you already believe Marx was wrong, then this will at least help you disagree with the correct things….

Dialectics & the Mechanics of History:
The Material Architecture of Society

“The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it”
-Karl Marx

Karl Marx, Later YearsBy the time The Communist Manifesto was written, plenty of Utopian socialists and communists were already running around Europe, raising all kinds of dust. Before Marx, however, they looked at history much like a story that was written by the actions and choices of its human protagonists ( some more than others, of course ) who championed their ideas, values, and  beliefs. Present-day society was thought to be the simple result of adding up everything said and done by all the important folk in history ( plus-or-minus the occasional act of god or fateful accident ). Based on this assumption, reformers figured that society would change if enough people accepted their new values or ideas about how things should be. This type of philosophy — that the material world is shaped by ideas, mind, spirit, or other non-material forces — is known as idealism

And this is the part of the story when a Prussian philosopher with an impressive beard waltzed in and ruined everything…

Material Base: The Substructure

According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life. Other than this neither Marx nor I have ever asserted.
-Friedrich Engels, close friend of Marx & co-author of The Communist Manifesto

After studying philosophy, Marx began to see things very differently. He noticed that civilization had to produce everything needed for human survival before it could develop culture, art, religion, or politics. Under every society, there was a system to produce and re-produce the food, shelter, and material conditions that sustain life, which he called its material base. Observing that the material base did not appear to be a result of the society’s particular values or beliefs, Marx concluded that the material conditions of societies were not the result of its ideologies. In fact, it seemed to be the other way around.

Relations of Production:
The social Chassis

“Society does not consist of individuals, but expresses the sum of interrelations, the relations within which these individuals stand.”
-Karl Marx

Base & Superstructure Info-Graphic, Dialectical MaterialismProducing the goods to sustain an entire society is a group project and, since literally everyone has to eat, everyone is forced to participate in the base by producing and consuming or, at least, by consuming. One person farms, another drives the food to a town where a cook gets paid to prepare the meal, and someone else munches it for lunch-break at a shop that sold boots to the farmer for wages he gets from the guy who owns the farm. Those are ( very ) simple examples of relations of production, a term Marx used to describe the web of social relations between the members of society that form as the result of producing its base. On a bigger scale, these relations divide society into groups that become socially defined by their economic role.

Understanding Class

Capitalist vs Working ClassGroups who share the same economic interests are known as a class. In capitalist societies, farmers, machinists, clerks, and others who exchange their labor for a wage are the working class ( aka the proletariat ). Higher wages, labor rights, and strong social programs tend to give workers a bigger share of the overall wealth of the society. Employers, business-folk, and investors are an opposing  capitalist class, whom Marx referred to as the bourgeoisie ( say: ‘boor-jh-WAH-zee’ ), which means “city people.” Capitalists benefit economically from lower wages, fewer labor rights, and less regulations which tend to give business-owners a bigger share of the wealth.

The Ideological Superstructure

“The ideas of the ruling class are in every era the ruling ideas”
-Karl Marx

Marxism, Superstructure GraphicMarx saw the relations of production as the framework for culture, values, beliefs, and political ideas in a society, which he called the ideological superstructure. The superstructure is pretty much everything from legal and political systems to religious institutions, schools, and the media. Since the relations do not give equal access or control over wealth to everyone, some classes end up with greater economic power. This power structure becomes reinforced by the superstructure because classes with greater wealth naturally gain more influence over institutions, which turns them into instruments to justify the status quo and formalize the economic power of the ruling class.

For example, the ruling class of feudalism was supported by the Church with religious dogma that justified monarchy and re-interpreted the bible to teach peasants that disobeying rulers was a sin and that poverty was a virtue. Under capitalism, however, advertisers and celebrities send the overall message that anyone is free to become rich by working hard and pulling themselves up by the bootstraps, implying the wealthy capitalist class were once working-class underdogs ( just like you! ). Until the relations of production shift ( and they always do ), the superstructure reflects the interests of the class that controls the wealth produced at the base.

To sum up Marx’s basic view of the material structure of society:

  • Ideology, values, politics, law, etc. are a result of the society’s material base, which is the cycle of economic activity that produces the material conditions needed for the society to survive
  • To produce the base, members of the society must enter into relations of production which form a social framework for the ideological superstructure
  • The institutions that make up the ideological superstructure defend and justify the social and economic conditions that favor the ruling class

Marx, Base and Superstructure Graphic, Dialectical Materialism

Dialectics & Class Conflict:
The Engines of Social Progress

“Whoever has come to understand that evolution proceeds through the struggle of antagonistic forces; that a slow accumulation of changes at a certain moment explodes the old shell and brings about a catastrophe, revolution; whoever has learned finally to apply the general laws of evolution to thinking itself, he is a dialectician. […] Dialectic training of the mind, as necessary to a revolutionary fighter as finger exercises to a pianist, demands approaching all problems as processes”
-Leon Trotsky

Marx’s understanding of the forces beneath the hood of society was not the only way he changed how people thought about human history. In fact, these materialist insights are just the first step in understanding the larger theory Marx developed to explain how social change — that is, how revolution — works.

The Dialectical Method

Basic Dialectic: Thesis, Antithesis, SynthesisThe beating heart of Marx’s theory of history is the dialectic. Dialectics are a way to think critically about systems or processes by understanding how they become. There is no exact recipe or formula but it may be helpful to see a dialectic as three parts — thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. A thesis can be anything a person chooses. Closely examining the thesis shows it cannot be separated from an opposing force that negates the thesis — this is the antithesis. Conflict between the opposing forces develops into contradiction that must be resolved by the synthesis, a new state that integrates the conflict into a more developed whole. This is simpler than it seems — here are a few examples of dialectics at work:

  • The caterpillar ( thesis ) cannot be understood without the butterfly ( anti-thesis ). Everything “caterpillar-ish” — leaf-munching, climbing plants, segmented body etc. — contains an opposing “butterfly-ish” force that negates the caterpillar. Conflict of the opposing forces develops the contradiction that collapses the caterpillar system to a new state — the chrysalis ( synthesis ).
  • A power plant ( thesis ) relies on coal from a nearby mine. The coal that produces energy is also turning the mine into an empty mine ( antithesis ) which negates it. Conflict between the opposing tendencies of plant and mine develop an internal contradiction in the system which eventually collapses to a new state that either uses a different energy-source or shuts down ( multiple synthesis possibilities ).

The Social Dialectic

Marxist Dialectic, Star Wars MemeWith dialectics, Marx built a model of history that viewed society as a process fueled by contradictions that developed in the material base between the opposing relations and forces of production. At first, relations of production are formed by a definite pattern established by the forces of production, which are just the material stuffs, tools, labor-power, and technologies available to use for production. Then, the pattern becomes formalized in the superstructure’s legal and political institutions because they are mainly controlled by the class that gains the most wealth from the situation (and naturally wants to keep it that way). This is how contradictions start to develop.

The pattern set by the forces of production shifts over time due to new technology, scientific discoveries, changing resources, and innovations by labor, among other things. As these forces begin to change, they drift away from the pattern formalized in the relations of production — eventually, the two come into conflict. On one side, the ruling class protects their power by enforcing the old pattern of relations — and on the other side, the forces of production ( including the workers of the labor-force ) develop into a new pattern that contains the seeds of a new class structure.

Class Conflict & Social Revolution

“The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles”
-Karl Marx

The ruling class’ interests align with the relations of production’s reactionary tendency to resist change, while the productive class is aligned with the forces of production’s revolutionary tendency toward progress. As the relations and forces come into more intense conflict, the legal and political mechanisms in the superstructure reflexively defend the established order by undermining change in the productive forces and suppressing new flows of wealth. [ Note: a good example of this may be the ongoing efforts by congress & the FCC to seize greater control over the internet, a game-changing development in the forces of production ]

Productive classes, however, often do not develop a sense of class-solidarity until later stages because the superstructure serves to indoctrinate the majority with the rulers’ perspectives and ideology. Media, education, and propaganda constantly persuade society that conditions which benefit the ruling class are what is best for everybody. But it is only a matter of time — as the contradictions develop more fully, the rulers must increasingly resort to force and outright tyranny to preserve the social order, eventually rousing the classes below.

When the day ripens, social revolution breaks the husks of the collapsed order to spontaneously form new relations of production, transforming society upwards from its base to its superstructure.

Understanding the Marxist Tradition

What a lot of people miss about Marx is that he did not intend to advance a moral or ethical argument that everyone should somehow be equal — Marx tinkered with the mechanics of history, took society apart, and tried to explain how it worked. He did not claim capitalism should fall — a lot of folks reached that conclusion already. He claimed that it would fall, that it had to fall — that contradiction at the heart of capitalism ensured its downfall, like all class societies before it. The point is not about whether socialism is “right” or even whether it is the best idea — it is about the inevitable results of history. One of the more radical implications of the Marxist theory of history is that — like evolution, biological development, entropy, and time itself — history tends in a direction.

And that direction is forward.

Dialectics & Modes of Production, Capitalism, Feudalism, Slavery, Tribalism, Marxist Graphic

Marxism Is the Idea That Society is a Verb

While Marx was critical of capitalism, he was far more critical of every other system that existed before it. It is clear in his own writings that Marx saw capitalism as progressive compared to what came before it and admired the efficiency of capitalist production, which he saw as a step toward the abundance necessary for socialism to develop. Just as caterpillar and chrysalis are stages in the full development of a butterfly, he understood both capitalism and socialism as stages in the greater development of society — ultimately, every husk is discarded. But with no caterpillar, no chrysalis, and no capitalism, there can be no butterfly nor communism ( and, perhaps most tragically, no communist butterflies ).

Metamorphosis, caterpillar to chrysalis, butterfly, communism

Marx, Weatherman & Prophet

To understand what made society change, Marx looked back to its roots in the dark of history and, rather than the deeds of kings, he found a crucible in which a truly human civilization was still in the process of development. And — though Marx might not have appreciated this comparison — in some ways, he was more like one of the old Hebrew prophets than an economist or historian. Like Isaiah, he proclaimed the emancipation of the poor and oppressed, forewarning the wealthy rulers of a day that would turn all their power to vapor. Searching the interlocking constellations of history, nature, and civilization, he perceived a pattern. Or maybe he was just some kind of weatherman, delivering the socioeconomic forecast for a stateless, classless society.

In solidarity,
John Laurits

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This is the best, easiest explanation of Marxism I have ever encountered, thank you for writing it so simply for us. I believe if this can be communicated a whole lot of people would recognize that they already agree with these self-evident truths. It is easy to empirically observe that this is how government/class/policy and law/enforcement/media/schooling/work/benefits/pay/rights/etc, work on a daily basis. Hell, just try negotiating a raise or demanding our immense productivity and wealth go to national healthcare rather than insurance executives! Marx’s observations are simple facts of human behavior and necessities of life. As he predicted the stranglehold of capitalist class greedos has led us to tyranny and violence, the next phase is always bloody hell, revolution.

Wise one?
Wise one?
It need not be the result, except for “fear itself” manifested in each of us in falsely instinctive ways, that cause our “fight or flight” reactions. (As in Franklin D. Roosevelt saying, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself!”) Every terrible thing we cause or suffer has, at its roots, FEAR! Insidious fear! How has and is and will that continue to affect/afflict Humanity, if Humanity refuses or fails to face it squarely, together? We need to stop digging the “HOLE” that our fears cause us to keep digging! And those that have the most of everything must be the ones to “risk” leading the way, or we will keep destroying all the possibilities we create together, in our insanities of fear! The only thing we are succeeding at, is failing ourselves, over and over and over! Are we evolved enough… Read more »
At the beginning, when you say ‘…the search results are drenched in a flood of memes to stoke paranoia over “cultural Marxism” ( which began with the Nazis, by the way )…’, it sounds like you mean that “cultural Marxism” began with the Nazis, rather than that stoking paranoia over “cultural Marxism” began with the Nazis. Also, you kind of lost me at the end when the caterpillar turns into communism, because before you had said that Marx wasn’t talking about communism, so the word seems to appear out of nowhere without context. It’s such a hot word that some people might incline some people to discount everything else you said. Your concluding paragraph didn’t add anything of value to your article, didn’t reinforce very well the earlier good points, and made me feel inclined not to forward a link to your article to… Read more »

All good notes!