The Meaning and Application of Dialectical Materialism

by Robert Lovely

Say a human is born on a world that is plagued on every end by pollution, where those who pollute the most receive society’s greatest rewards while those who toil till their bones crack to build society itself must wallow in the filth. Where there is enough food to feed every household indefinitely, and has been for over a century, yet billions go hungry, and children die on empty stomachs. Where millions upon millions of brilliant people die in imperialist terror before their genius can ever shine. This person may have grown up just somewhat fixated on history.

We need not imagine, of course. You, dear reader, and all others alive were born in such a world. Many of us, indeed, have been haunted by questions of why our world is as it is our entire lives. Yet many more have felt disappointed and unsatisfied by the answers we have received. Ask a preacher, and they will tell you that the devil has led mankind astray. Ask your family, and you may be lectured on how it was back in their day. Ask your boss, and you might be told that lazy men have laid waste to the world. Ask a friend, and you will often be met with a simple “it is what it is.”

If, somehow, these answers did not quench your need to know, you might turn to the great philosophers. You will, however, soon find that their words have often changed little. After experiencing several or even one capitalist election, you will likely notice that despite the rhetoric, each incumbent seems to fall into the same tread path. Finally, you may just start to think that perhaps ideology does not make the world, but rather the other way around. If this is the case, then you have taken your very first step into the understanding of materialism.

Precisely in the spirit of materialism, one can begin to define it by first understanding what it is not. Materialism is, first and foremost, a refutation of the philosophical schools of idealism. Idealism, put quite simply, being the philosophical belief that ideas or thoughts shape reality. Or, more specifically, that ideas and thoughts come first in regard to the nature of the world. One of the most common paragons of idealist thought comes in the form of religious doctrine. In the structure of religious belief can be found the very foundational principles of idealism. The belief that the comprehensive essence of the self  (a “soul”) exists separately from the material world, the belief that indeed there is anything other than the material world, the belief that there are unchanging principles and authorities of existence that are separate and above material reality.

The French and American bourgeois revolutions enshrined an ideal of the “separation of church and state” or civic secularism. Although religious institutions still manage to influence bourgeois politics, these ideals have been largely met in a manner agreeable to the ruling class. The divine right of kings is no longer a valid political dictate in bourgeois society. However, idealism still dominates bourgeois ideology.

Religious thinking can be found anywhere, and from anyone, regardless of its attachment to traditional notions of divinity. Debate any bourgeois academic and you will be liable to hear the term “human nature” tossed about haphazardly. One might say, “It is only human nature to be greedy,” or perhaps “War is inevitable, it is human nature.” This – however difficult to perceive at first glance – is a form of idealism. It is asserting the existence of an omnipotent, unassailable, unchanging force separate to and above material reality – “human nature.” Sound familiar?

One quick skim through a high school history textbook should tell you all you need to know about the supposed supremacy of  “human nature.” If it is human nature to be greedy, then exactly how did a millennium of European monarchs come to assert their power over all society by virtue of blood and divinity? Surely, the characteristic greed of bourgeois society and the acquisition of power within it would have made such a state of affairs entirely untenable. If one were to travel back to the waning days of Feudalism, they would surely find some claiming, in different verbiage, that it was “human nature” for common folk to be subservient to the king, his nobles, and local lords. It would seem, however, that this omnipotent force was helpless to stop the rise of the bourgeoisie. How delightfully paradoxical!

With an understanding of idealism, one can understand materialism more concretely. That is, it is precisely the opposite of idealism. Materialists assert that material reality, what really exists, is all that does exist. Furthermore, that material reality shapes ideas and thoughts, that the world comes before the mind. A materialist believes not in any world, reality, or principle that is separate or supreme to material reality.

Idealism, in its many forms, has dominated philosophy for the overwhelming majority of written history. It was not until very recently (in the grand scheme of history) that materialist schools of thought appeared to make lasting and historical stands against idealism. It is absolutely no coincidence that this rise in materialist analysis of reality coincides with the greatest period of scientific and technological development in history. Science is, by its very definition, materialist. An effective scientist attempts to refine their thought in such a way to observe material reality as it exists, and draw conclusions based on the findings that follow. To suspend preconceived notions and supreme ideals in favor of a sober analysis of what really exists. (Marx 1845, 4-8)

This is not to say that scientists and scientific institutions are not still unfortunately plagued with elements of idealism. That idealism has been defeated as the primary understanding of the world in the realm of scientific pursuits does not guarantee its total absence. Science taking place under bourgeois society often serves to justify the rule of capital, however subtle it may be presented. One might ask how such a phenomenon is possible. For that, one must understand the concept of dialectics.

Similarly to materialism, dialectics is a development of philosophical thought that achieved definition through its conflict with metaphysics. Metaphysics, or metaphysical thought, can be roughly defined as an understanding of reality as being made up of “ready-made things.” That all phenomena exist independently of other phenomena, “in a vacuum” as it were. A metaphysical thinker will look upon an object that they have an understood definition for and define it as itself and only itself, with no regard for the object’s relationship with any other objects.

Dialectics opposes this understanding. Dialectical thinking entails the understanding that reality is made up not of “ready-made things” but of an infinitely regressing set of processes. A dialectician will set out to understand an object or phenomena as being precisely defined by its relationship with other objects or phenomena. In choosing to define “materialism” and “dialectics” by first contrasting both principles with their philosophical opposites, we are engaging in a dialectical exercise. Dialectics also asserts the existence of contradictory forces within all objects or phenomena that shape them.

This could be best understood with an example. Consider the common household lightbulb. Webster’s English Dictionary defines a lightbulb as, “an electric lamp, such as one in which a filament gives off light when heated to incandescence by an electric current.”[1] (Lightbulb n.d.) We certainly include a physical description of the object in its definition, but one must consider that part of this definition includes a relationship to the object’s environment. A lightbulb is not simply filament, or glass, or electric. It “gives off light,” a relationship to the environment. Without this vital property, one ceases to have a lightbulb anymore. One can brainstorm plenty of different definitions for any tool, including light bulbs, but humans do not create definitions for the sole purpose of defining the physical manifestation of an object, rather their value for use.

But the definition of a lightbulb does not truly stop here. What is light? Once again, from the dictionary, light is, “something that makes vision possible.”[2] (Light n.d.) This is another relationship, not just a qualitative description. We could go even further, what is vision? What is sight if there is nothing to be seen? If you see something colored red, what meaning does red have if no other color exists? Red is red because it is not blue, green, yellow, or any other color. One can move along this regress forever, and never exhaust new relationships. This is not to say that any object or phenomena can be reduced only to its relationship with another, but that indeed no object is definable without its relationships.

Where dialectics really shine is that it is hitherto the most advanced and comprehensive analysis of development that mankind has been able to employ. This is where contradiction comes in. Within all objects and phenomena exist internal contradictions, or opposing forces that determine the nature of the object. These forces are in constant flux, feeding into one another and changing based on what is required for each side of the contradiction to continue existing. There are many of these contradictions, however there is always what is referred to as a “principle contradiction,” a contradiction that determines the nature of all other contradictions within something.

Another example, let’s take a look at a human brain cell, or neuron. Neurons work by producing electrical signals that travel along their axon, through a synapse, and to the dendrites of another neuron. These electrical signals, however, are only produced when an action potential is achieved. That being when a chemical shift within the neuron reaches a certain threshold that releases energy. Here we have a contradiction, that between a neuron’s inactivity and its potential to fire, existing within the same object. For the majority of the time, this principle contradiction is in favor of inactivity. The neuron is at rest. As channels open and chemical intake begins, the other side of this contradiction begins to gain more and more favor toward being in power. However it is only at a critical point, the action potential, that a change occurs, putting the neurons firing potential over its inactivity in power, and it fires its electrical signal.

This change is a revolution. It is the seizure of power of one side of a contradiction from the other. This revolution, even if in this case it will inevitably be reversed, changes the neuron. Because it has fired a signal, its relationship to its environment has fundamentally changed, however slightly. If it has not changed where it has fired the signal, it has changed how many times it has fired thus far. Once again, we can take this into an infinite regress. Because once enough neurons have fired, a critical point will be reached that will cause a change in the brain. Once that change has been integrated, another critical point, an action or response will trigger. So on, and so forth.

With a basic understanding of materialism and dialectics, as well as what they have historically opposed, one can begin to understand the central analytical tool of a Marxist (and therefore scientific) thinker, dialectical materialism. As the phrase may imply, it is, at base, a fusion of materialism and dialectics. How this manifests usefully in the work of a Marxist is as a complete understanding of the development of objects and phenomena existing in material reality. This differs from the original dialectics of individuals such as George Hegel, for whom Marx drew much inspiration. While understanding the truth of dialectics, Hegel still clung to the schools of idealism. As such he could not form a complete picture of reality, because one cannot adequately analyze the development of objects or phenomena in the real world if they continue to hold that ideas determine material reality. Because idealism asserts the existence of unchanging principles separate to and above reality, it undermines the foundational principles of dialectics. That being that all things must and will undergo constant change, and nothing can be separated or framed from material reality. (Stalin 1938, pp. 7-10)

Additionally, dialectical materialist analysis of history leads us to a more complete understanding of the ongoing class struggle. We can recognize the principle contradiction in our society between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. We can further study the smaller contradictions between various classes, events, and social phenomena to aid in Marxist work as well as develop the social science of Marxism further. This is already observable in history. Marxism-Leninism is not simply Marxism with additional thoughts by Lenin, it is the fundamental development of Marxism as a science through social observation, experimentation, analysis, and conclusion.

Marxism is distinguishable from all other philosophy in that Marxism, more than any other, has been able to provide a complete and useful understanding of reality as it has so far transpired. True mastery of dialectical materialist analysis allows for unbiased and sober comprehension of the world. Marxism allows us not only to change the world, but to change ourselves. Marx himself, however, could put it far more eloquently when he said, “The philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.” (Marx 1845, p. 11)


[1] “Light Bulb Definition & Meaning.” Merriam-Webster. Accessed July 30, 2023.

[2] “Light Definition & Meaning.” Merriam-Webster. Accessed August 6, 2023.


“Dialectical and Historical Materialism.” 1938: Dialectical and Historical Materialism. Accessed August 16, 2023.

“Light Bulb Definition & Meaning.” Merriam-Webster. Accessed July 30, 2023.

“Light Definition & Meaning.” Merriam-Webster. Accessed August 6, 2023.

Marx, Karl. “A. Idealism and Materialism.” The German Ideology. Accessed August 17, 2023.

Marx, Karl. “Theses on Feuerbach.” Theses On Feuerbach by Karl Marx. Accessed August 17, 2023.

CORNFORTH, Maurice. Materialism and the Dialectical Method. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1976.

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