U.S> and World Politics

The ABCs of Dialectics

By John Blackburn

Leon Trotsky compared formal logic to dialectical logic as a still photograph to a movie. A photograph can provide a myriad of information about a particular situation as it was in the instant it was taken but that image is only one moment in a sequence of events. The photo doesn’t tell us what has gone before, and we can only guess what happened next. A movie can show us the narrative sequence leading to that scene and beyond.

Marxists pay homage to formal logic and recognize it is necessity for all of us as we deal with the world in our domestic lives, work and to research in every branch of science.

A = A,

A is not = B

All of our systems of classification in every branch of study from astronomy to zoology and library book cataloguing employ these basic rules of logic. Humanity owes a great debt to Aristotle (384-322 BC) who first identified the laws of logic over two millennia ago, that we employ constantly today.

However close inspection of every phenomenon in the natural world and human society reveals that the one constant in the universe is change.

A is not A forever.

“In nature nothing remains constant. Everything is in a perpetual state of transformation, motion, and change. However, we discover that nothing simply surges up out of nothing without having antecedents that existed before. Likewise, nothing ever disappears without a trace, in the sense that it gives rise to absolutely nothing existing at later times. This general characteristic of the world can be expressed in terms of a principle which summarizes an enormous domain of different kinds of experience and which has never yet been contradicted in any observation or experiment, scientific or otherwise; namely, everything comes from other things and gives rise to other things” —quantum physicist and Marxist philosopher David Bohm.

In that sentence Bohm has summarized the essence of dialectical materialism.

Marx and Engels considered all of the early philosophers, particularly Aristotle, to be instinctive dialecticians but those predecessors did not have sufficient scientific knowledge to understand the motive forces of change. They lived in a world where the established view was that all change resulted from the behavior of capricious gods and other supernatural beings. Socrates (c470-399BC) would be condemned to death for suggesting that his students question that presumption. It would take the accumulated experience of more than 2000 years of developments in society and science to reveal the forces driving the dialectical phenomena in the material world.

When we wish to investigate nature in more detail or over time it soon becomes clear that everything is changing so that the logic of A = A no longer applies.

A = A and to non-A at the same time.

A is becoming into B.

It is this contradiction to formal logic which is at the heart of dialectical logic.

This is the law of “the unity of opposites.”

Everything is at once itself and in the process of becoming something else.

The changes in the natural world are not beyond human understanding. They have characteristics and patterns which are recognized and classified into the laws of science. It was the German philosopher, Georg Frederick Hegel (1770-1831) who, basing his studies on 2000 years of philosophical speculation, scientific progress and influenced by the revolutionary political climate during his young life who identified the general laws of dialectics that are in operation everywhere in nature and society. (Warning: Hegel is not an easy read.)

For Hegel, all of nature was a manifestation of the original “notion” or “Absolute Idea” which finds itself through progressive development in the material world to result in absolute self-knowledge. Hegel was an idealist. For him the idea came first and material reality its product and means of self-realization. For materialist Marxists the external world is primary, and our thinking is the product of the activity of our brains absorbing through our senses, integrating, processing, analyzing and reflecting on the information it is receiving. Dialectical thinking is derived from the dialectical nature of reality.

We think using the principles of formal logic as they are true most of the time and are necessary and sufficient for many activities. But nature is not static and other methods of thinking are needed to understand how and why changes occur. That method is dialectical materialism.

It is necessary to start by considering how we obtain and verify our knowledge. Marx and Engels solved this issue in philosophy by recognizing that the source and confirmation of knowledge is human social practice. In the process of carrying out the tasks necessary to live, humans have always acted collectively whether it be as hunter gatherers or in modern high-tech industries. Knowledge of the world is obtained collectively through the senses of individuals, but humans have always lived in social groups so that knowledge and practical techniques have always been shared communal products, transmitted down generations and preserved collectively.

Marxists start with the view that our knowledge of the material world is fairly accurate. Scientific research and practical experience are continually expanding and refining our knowledge and deepening our understanding of every aspect of nature. In just over two centuries our knowledge of the universe, its origin, history and future developments have been elucidated in considerable detail from the detailed internal structure of the atom back to the beginning of time with the Big Bang. We know the evolution of our solar system and its context in the Milky Way galaxy and how our own planet has changed over the past 4.5 billion years has left evidence that has been unraveled by science charting the universe as it has evolved in 13.7 billion years.

In September 2020 after a four-year mission a human made satellite collected material from the surface of an asteroid, named Bennu with a diameter of 500m, 200 million miles from Earth traveling at more than 100,000-km-per-hour. Having orbited, photographed and mapped Bennu, an arm projected from the satellite collected material from its surface and is returning with it to Earth for analysis. This was a massive collective human undertaking and a monumental tribute to our knowledge of the universe, our engineering and mathematical prowess.

Evidence of dialectics

Wherever we look in nature, history, sociology and even our daily lives we will find evidence of the laws of dialectics that Hegel systematized in his “Logic.” It is knowing what to look for.

As a trainee microbiologist I learned to use the compound microscope. My first experience was overwhelming and exciting as I looked into a world I didn’t know existed. I had to learn how to set up the microscope and to focus on specimens. With years of experience, I learned to identify different microorganisms, hundreds of different cell types and to distinguish healthy from diseased tissues. Electron microscopy would lead me to recognize intra-cellular structures, organelles and viruses.

So, too, with dialectics. Once the basic laws are known we can recognize them in operation wherever we find them and with practice, our skills as with any activity will improve and be refined.

“The dialectics of things produces the dialectics of ideas not vice versa.” Lenin taught “The laws of logic are the reflections of the objective in the subjective consciousness of man.”

Trotsky warned of this too:

“You can’t just foist dialectics on facts but must derive it from the facts, from their nature and their development...”

We cannot impose dialectics on nature or science or any field of investigation—they are either there or they are not. Yet we find dialectics wherever there is change. However, once we are familiar with dialectics and science, we realize that dialectics are the logic of evolution.

Dialectics and the triad

The concept of dialectics goes back to Plato (437-327 BC) where contradictory points of view are presented in a debate. We know of Socrates views only through Plato where he presented debates between Socrates and opponents in a backwards and forwards exchange of opinions. As a result of this dialectical debate views change and a deeper level of understanding of philosophy will emerge.

Hegel knew that the dialectical method was an essential to philosophy, but that Plato’s ideas were insufficient. The opposites presented in a dialectical debate were not mutually exclusive but facets of the same thing, that contradiction was necessary and when resolved, a higher level of understanding is reached. For Marx and Engels, the contradictions in ideas have their origin in the material world which is ever changing. The driving force of those changes are the real internal contradictory forces active in all things including nature and society.

Dialectics is frequently illustrated in the form of a general triad. Thesis + antithesis = synthesis.

A useful but simplistic example is:

Sodium—a highly reactive metal + chlorine—a poisonous gas together forms sodium chloride (common salt) an essential for life.

(The triad formula was never used by Hegel and I have not come across it in Marx or Engels either.)

This example can be useful as an introduction to the concept of the unity of opposites generating something qualitatively new.


Contradiction or the “unity of opposites” is the fundamental motive force of all change.

The Big Bang first produced light (electromagnetic radiation) which has no mass but has the properties of a particle and a wave and all physical matter from atoms to galaxies are products of light. Energy and matter—two opposites—are interchangeable in the natural world. (E=M times C squared)

From the simple to the highly complex from the inner workings of the atom to the expanding cosmos, to detailed investigations of life’s processes inside organisms, the interactions between opposing forces and phenomenon are universal.

The components of the nucleus of an atom are massless electromagnetic radiation “condensed” into subatomic particles and some such as the Higgs boson acquire mass.

The unity of the positively charge nucleus with the negatively charged electron is the fundamental building block of all chemical matter while the exchange and sharing of electrons between atoms is the principal mechanism of chemistry.

A star is a dynamic equilibrium between gravity and the thermonuclear reactions at its core where hydrogen is being fused to form helium.

Eventually the hydrogen fuel will run out and the star will implode, then explode sending debris containing all the chemical elements of the periodic table up to iron into space. The dying stars create all of the chemical elements necessary to make planets like ours and water the most abundant chemical compound in the universe. From some combination of these inorganic materials life will emerge on Earth and from unconscious chemical matter eventually a combination will produce consciousness and the ability to reflect on the dialectics of its own nature.

Consider the chicken embryo developing within its shell of inorganic calcium compounds. Absorbing the nutrients from the yolk the embryos’ cells multiply transforming the energy and nutrients into internal organs and limbs—the non-living yolk is transformed into a live chick. Eventually the chick breaks free from the confinement of the shell to a qualitatively new life. If it continues to be fed, the chick’s baby feathers will be replaced by adult ones which may allow the gravity bound bird to fly. In time, if the bird is fortunate to live to sexual maturity and find a mate, it will contribute to the next generation. It will change from being a dependent to being independent then, a parent. At some point in this seemingly repeated cycle of life, some of this successful line of birds will produce an egg that hatches to release a type of bird that is qualitatively different from its ancestors and, if able to reproduce, will be the first generation of a new species. (The egg came before the chicken.)

Whenever we investigate any natural phenomenon, we discover that nothing is permanent. Some changes are imperceptibly slow to our senses, on our human time scale—the Scottish Highlands were as high as Everest (8,828 meters) 600 million years ago but Ben Nevis the highest has been reduced to 1345 meters. Other processes we can watch, monitor and sometimes control such as gardening, cooking and scientific experiments. Yet others are so fast that all they leave is the trace of their having been, such as the identification of the Higgs boson.

Close examination of a group of A shows that all As are not identical. In microscopic examination no two microorganisms or cells or viruses are identical, yet we can classify them. For expediency and practicality these negligible differences are usually ignored while the quantity may be the most significant factor. The trained eye of a hematologist however can examine a specimen of blood in the microscope, recognize minuscule but significant differences in cells and so, can detect and diagnose leukemias or anemias. In these cases, A is not A with an expert’s close inspection and that may be a matter of life and death.

When we investigate chemical composition of individual living cells, we discover that they contain not only organic molecules such DNA, proteins and fats but inorganic chemicals such as sodium, potassium, chlorine and is overwhelmingly water. It is the constant movement of materials into and out of the cells and the constant regeneration of the internal organic structures that are the essential activities of life. Life is the product of the unity of opposites, the organic and the inorganic. Everything that lives will eventually die but that is not an event, it is a process, and not the end to the story. Corpses are food for a multitude of organisms from the microbial to the carrion eaters.

All living things inhabit an environment which includes other living beings. Whether it be in a pond, or inside a human body, every living cell is in a community and in communication with many others. In the pond there is a lot of eating. There are carbohydrate producing plants which become food for herbivores who in turn become prey to carnivores who are themselves prey to other carnivores and parasites. All living organisms produce waste which becomes food for other life forms.

The ecology of the pond is determined by a lot of dialectical processes but above all by the essential dialectics of life and death.

Within the bodies of every living multicellular organism there are similar dialectical processes at work—life and death, growth and decay. In the course of living every body is in a constant state of change. Millions of cells are dying while others are being generated every second of our life. While the body is growing by the production of new cells others are being induced to commit suicide (apoptosis) by specialized cells sculpting each tissue and organ into the form that will carry out a particular function such as liver, skin, brain or skeleton.

Reaching maturity for every organism is the combination of cell multiplication, differentiation and destruction. In humans, before we have reached sexual maturity, the processes of degeneration and ageing have already begun.

When we examine other phenomena that are presented as polar opposites by formal logic, we see that they too are inseparably linked.

Necessity and chance

That you are reading this means that you necessarily have an uninterrupted ancestry that goes back some 3.5 billion years to LUCA the common ancestor of all life on Earth. In that period countless trillions of other organisms have died, many of them to feed our ancestors each of whom survived long enough to produce descendants. Most of the species that ever lived are now extinct. It is the accumulated chance survivals through the immediate trials of life and five mass extinctions that were necessary for you and I to be here.

In sexual reproduction a sperm makes a chance encounter with a receptive egg as the necessary event. Two haploid cells with different ancestry (usually) combine their genetic material DNA to produce a unique individual. The DNA in each of the gametes is itself the product of the random shuffling of the genetic material each parent has inherited from their parents in such a way that unless cloned every individual human has a unique genetic profile. This process has been necessary for every one of us but there have been a myriad of chance events that lead to the evolution of humans and to each of us as living individuals.

A dandelion seed-head releases 100s of new seeds into the air that may travel for many miles. Most will not survive to germinate but by chance a few will and grow to maturity be fertilized (not an absolute with all dandelions) by a chance visiting pollinator— bee, a butterfly or a beetle and give rise to another generation of seeds. It may be the repetition of a seemingly endless cycle, but detailed investigation will show that gene shuffling means each seed is a unique individual. Some from each generation have to survive the hazards of natural selection or the species will become extinct. In time this seemingly random process will reveal the effects of natural selection. There are over 200 species of dandelions which have evolved from a common ancestor, each with a unique genetic profile, morphology and ecological niche all formed by chance mutations in their DNA together and selected by the opportunities and challenges of the world. The fossil record shows innumerable plant and animal species that are now extinct but the vacancies they left were soon filled often by unrelated organisms.

One species’ demise is an opportunity for others.

Cause and effect

Cause and effect are inseparably linked in every event in nature. Every new effect produces a change in its environment—it has become the cause of further changes.

In all chemical reactions as the product accumulates it becomes a break on its own production, which is referred to as negative feedback. The living body is dependent on an infinite series of regulator mechanisms that control the internal environment of the body and maintain it despite both external and internal challenges. These mechanisms known collectively as homeostasis all operate by signals that affect the activity of cells and organs. The consequences of the actions are reported back so that the effect is now a new cause. This results in a dynamic equilibrium being established which maintains the body’s essential functions through internal disease and injury. These have limits beyond which is death.

I will concentrate on one of the parings of formal logic1—the transformation of quantity into quality and vice versa.

The first point to make is that quality and quantity are inseparable, everything is both of these at the same time which is a dialectical relationship. In mathematics there are abstract quantities (x and z) but in the real world it is quantities of material things (qualities) that we work with—one liter of milk, five apples, two kilos of sugar. Even a single item (quality) has some volume, weight and other measurable (quantifiable) characteristics.

In nature quantity can profoundly affect quality. The example used by Engels of the Periodic Table, which was in its infancy in his day, has been confirmed with every element discovered or manufactured in the lab. The addition of a proton to the nucleus of an atom changes it into a different element.

In biology a myriad of species of inorganic ions—atoms that have gained or lost an electron—have an essential role in every aspect of living processes within cells and the tissues of the body.

Atoms and electrons

The loss or gain of an electron can profoundly affect the physical, chemical and biological behavior of atoms—poisons are neutralized, explosives tamed and both employed in living systems that are dependent upon them. The transfer of the hydrogen ion (H+) through a series of stages in cells until it combines with oxygen, to form water is the principle means by which our cells obtain the energy to facilitate all of the other life processes.

Qualitative change is the foundation of quantitative expansion.

Sixty-five-million years ago a meteor hit the Earth—an event that ended the era of the dinosaurs. A relatively unimportant group of animals, the mammals, were then able to multiple as never before, migrating and colonizing niches excluded to them before. Radiation and multiplication lead to diversification and the appearance of many new lineages and species. During that time many species of mammals have come into being and become extinct. One particular line of primates leads to the evolution of Homo sapiens, a creature, like no other before that could not only produce the means of life for itself but could reflect on its own origins and take consciously planned measures to affect its own future as a species.

Negation of the negation

Everything has an ancestry from which it has emerged. The whole of the natural history and the diversity of life on Earth is a manifestation of this dialectical law.

All life on Earth is descended from LUCA, a prokaryote, (a microscopic single-celled organism that has neither a distinct nucleus with a membrane nor other specialized organelles,) a bacterial-like organism which evolved about 3.5 billion years ago. Her decedents multiplied, displaced any contending life forms and diversified being the only form of life on Earth for a time. At some point where some aggregation of cooperating prokaryotes (A microscopic single-celled organism that has neither a distinct nucleus with a membrane nor other specialized organelles) formed an entirely new life form eukaryotes—cells with a nucleus. These new organisms also evolved a method of generating genetic diversity more rapidly—through sexual reproduction, the combining of genetic material from different sources.

Prokaryotic evolution had proceeded slowly over billions of years, however with eukaryotes the rate of evolutionary change is accelerated and within a short time, complex multicellular organisms appeared. While the most abundant organisms on Earth are still prokaryotes, it is multicellular life that has dominated for the last 500 million years. In that time there have been five mass extinctions each of which created conditions that allowed the emergence of new life forms that would radiate, diversify and predominate for a time to be supplanted by a life form that emerged from its ranks.

In our own lineage we have primitive ancestors whose unique characteristic was a biological experiment, an internal spinal column. For millions of years these creatures were not significant but in time they would give rise to fish whose relatives, the amphibians, would acquire the means to colonize the previously uninhabited land. Some decedents of the amphibians would evolve into exclusively land dwelling but “cold blooded” reptiles—a branch of which over time evolved into internal heat producing mammals. From our DNA through our anatomy, physiology and biochemistry we can still trace the biological features our ancestors have bequeathed to us. Each has been a platform from which other developments were generated eventually leading to a qualitatively different type of organism.

“Negation of the negation” is not a negative concept. The best of the old is maintained while escaping from its constraints so that new potentials are now presented.

A caterpillar lays its fertilized eggs on a leaf. The eggs hatch releasing the caterpillar that was developing inside. The caterpillars are eating machines and also an important food source for many birds and animals. Those that survive form a cocoon around themselves where the caterpillar body is broken down to all but its nervous and respiratory systems then used as material and fuel to build a new butterfly. When ready, the butterfly breaks out of its cocoon and sets off in search of a sexual partner and, if successful, the cycle continues again. Each stage is a negation of the previous stage in the butterfly’s life cycle and a qualitatively different form needed for other activities.

All complex organisms go through definite stages of development but not as dramatically compartmentalized as butterflies and their insect relatives.

The truth is always concrete

Irrespective of the general laws of dialectics we have discussed, the truth of what is happening in the real world is always our starting point. The truth is always concrete. The particular laws of dialects are not proscriptions for every situation and all time. They are a guide to analysis and action in today’s world and will be the foundation for the higher levels of consciousness that will emerge with social progress.

Why is any of this important?

First if we want to understand how the world works and then our thinking has to correspond to that reality. Everything in the universe is in constant movement but that does not make it lawless and unknowable. The specific branches of science investigate particular spheres of nature and have their own laws and paradigms. The constant that connects all branches of knowledge is dialectics.

Surgeons are encouraged to adopt hobbies such as playing a musical instrument or model making both of which require practice, patience manual dexterity and concentration. All are skills that they also employ in the operating theatre. As recreational activities they are also refining the skills that will be put to practical use in the life and death environment of the operating theatre.

So, too, with dialectical thinking, it is a tool like all others that our skill in using improves with practice. In our everyday life, of work and studies we will encounter dialectical processes constantly if we choose to look, until dialectics becomes our natural way of thinking. It is our most important weapon in the class struggle. It allows us to identify trends and developments in the class struggle so that we can intervene to promote those movements which serve the interests of the working class and try to block those that don’t.

Marx and Engels were the first to recognize that history has always been the product of class struggles. The desire for socialism and a better life for all, among the working class, is a product of poverty and deprivation which are themselves inescapable products of the capitalist system. The capitalist system produced the proletarian class—a unity of opposites in constant struggle. The workers create the wealth which the capitalist class appropriates, and that dialectical relationship will only be resolved when the means of production are expropriated from the capitalists, directed to social use and the entire capitalist state apparatus is destroyed. Others believe that another road is possible, but the last few decades have shown that gains made over generations by the working class can be removed in an instant.

Sections of the Labour movement may have abandoned the class struggle but the capitalist class never does.

Knowledge is the guide to correct actions and that, above all, is the importance of dialectical materialism which gives us a more comprehensive understanding of the world than any particular branch of science or other school of philosophy.

Marx and Engels realized that capitalism had created a dialectical relationship of the capitalist class and the proletariat. The poverty and misery created by capitalism will only be abolished irrevocably when the proletariat takes control of society and runs industry, commerce and farming for need not profit. Dialectical materialism is an optimistic philosophy. No situation is permanent. The masses cannot be permanently held down or contained and every condition is only temporary.

To return to our movie analogy. It has a determined end which must flow logically from the proceeding story line. The director may have had options for the final cut, but the viewer has to passively accept the outcome. That is where the analogy ends, for we have the choice to remain observers or to actively participate. For Marxists, that means above all, in the class struggle, where dialectical and historical materialism are our greatest weapons.

Professor Hegel became a conservative in his old age and thought that constitutional monarchy was the pinnacle of human government. The revolutionary of his youth had turned into the opposite, a reactionary, in later life—a common enough story.

Dialectics forces us to face the truth however unpalatable. Marx and Engels realized that the state is the guardian of capitalism and only with its revolutionary overthrow and replacement by the dictatorship of the proletariat internationally can socialism be brought about. That knowledge then is the foundation for the program, strategy and tactics of revolutionary communists and what distinguishes us from other socialists and anarchists.

Suggested reading:

Introduction to the Logic of Marxism, by George Novak

Socialism Scientific and Utopian, by Frederick Engels

In Defense of Marxism, by Leon Trotsky

1 Without going into detail here I have listed a series of pairings that formal logic puts in opposition to each other. As a mental exercise look at these pairings in contexts that you are familiar with: Subject and object; Host and parasite; Growth and decay; Life and death; Cause and effect; Necessity and chance; Essence and appearance; Content and form; Self and non-self; Particular and universal; Quantity into quality.