I just submitted this article hopefully to be published at onlineopinion.com.au
Marxism Destroyed the Dialectic
Gilbert Holmes September 2010
GWF Hegel was not a good writer. Subsequently, it is easy to become lost in the complexity of the philosophical system that he developed, rather than to gain insight into the simple concept that underlies that system.
Hegel gave us the dialectic, and while the man has failed to gain popular recognition, the dialectic itself is a particularly beautiful philosophical concept.
To properly understand this concept, we need to take a look at Hegel's influences. While much has been written about the place that Hegel's ideas have within the history of Western philosophy, it is actually the influence from Eastern philosophy that is much more apparent. Most specifically, Hegel was inspired by the concept of yin/yang polarity.
The dialectic is a simple idea. Essentially, when we look at any progression within nature, we can discern a tendency to swing from side to side between archetypal, polar extremes, as well as to sometimes to find a balance between those extremes. In a nutshell, that is it, with the three parts to the dialectic progression often called the thesis, the antithesis and the synthesis.
Looking at some examples:
Consider a young person trying to deal with their emotions. We can imagine that they will be angry and aggressive at times, (the thesis), and weak and lost at other times (the antithesis). As they mature, they will take something good from each of the extremes and blend them into a positive balance, becoming both strong and gentle (the synthesis).
Or we could look at a population of rabbits introduced to an island. At first spreading out and expanding in numbers, the rabbits eventually eat all the food. Their numbers decline again. If uninterrupted, this cycle will continue, with swings between a high and a low population until eventually a stable population is reached.
We could also look at the tension between law and crime. If there is high levels of crime, the law will become tighter in response. If the law is too restrictive, however, the people will fight against it. Hopefully at some stage we will come to a happy balance whereby the law is sufficient to constrain destructive elements, yet relaxed enough to enable us to go about our diverse lives.
We have looked above at examples from the fields of psychology, biology and sociology. Actually, the dialectic can be used to understand any progression within nature, on the large scale and the small. Whilst it is widely applicable however, to date the dialectic has been most extensively applied in relation to understanding a single subject; the progression of human history.
And this is where we have run into a problem.
Being a member of the 'Young Hegelians' in his early years, the most famous exponent of dialectics is Karl Marx. Because of this the dialectic is generally considered in relation to Marxism.
Marx's version of history, which has come be known as dialectical materialism, provides the cornerstone for his political and economic theories. It was dialectic thinking that led Marx to divide society into the opposing proletariat and bourgeoisie, inspiring the opening line to 'The Communist Manifesto': 'The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.'
While we do have to credit Marx with some wisdom for being able to recognize the importance of the dialectic, there are unfortunately some serious errors in his interpretation of the concept.
With the addition of 'materialism' to the dialectic for example, Marx and friends essentially told us that the way that we think is determined by the structure of our society. In other words, we will be selfish and greedy if we live in a capitalist society, and kind-hearted and benevolent if we live in a communist society.
Believing that our minds are currently corrupted by capitalism, therefore, and that as soon as capitalism is destroyed we will all want to move into mutually supportive communes together, this has led to the unfortunate tendency within socialist/communist circles to focus on revolution rather than on designing better systems of governance and economics.
Marxist thought has also largely lost Hegel's concept of the 'synthesis', whereby a resolution between two opposing conditions is found through taking something good from either condition and blending these good things together. Instead of looking for a synthesis, Marx believed that communism would rise up and destroy capitalism.
Even with these serious flaws in the Marxist interpretation, Marxism has managed to maintain something of a monopoly over the concept of the dialectic, with the controversial nature of Marxist philosophy tending to inhibit exploration of the dialectic in non-Marxist contexts, either for the purpose of analyzing human history or in other areas.
Looking toward the future therefore, while remembering not to throw the lovely dialectic baby out with the bathwater, let us try to move beyond the Marxist interpretation of the dialectic.
Aiming for a more appropriate understanding; taking a look back over our global society over the last few centuries, I suggest that we can recognize two principle dialectic tensions playing themselves out.
The first is the tension between spirituality and materialism. Beginning perhaps in the early1600's, we saw the dominance of religiosity being undermined by the rise of science and the 'enlightenment'. In more recent times, with modern physics aiding our understanding, and with the increasing influence of Eastern spirituality on the West, a synthesis of spirituality and materialism can be seen to be emerging in the form of a nature based spirituality.
The second of these dialectic tensions is between what I like to call separatism and collectivism. Separatism tell us that we are essentially separate from one another, that we are self-interested and that interactions between us are ultimately competitive. Collectivism on the other hand, tells us that we exist as a community, and that we are benevolent, loving and cooperative. The conflict between capitalism and communism can of course be understood to have occurred within this context.
A more balanced worldview, a synthesis of separatism and collectivism, will tend to tell us that we are paradoxically both separate and connected; both individuals and a community, both self-interested and benevolent, both competitive and cooperative. I believe that this balanced worldview is emerging within current times.
We can see that following the long struggle between capitalism and communism, and with the subsequent decline of communism, that our economic institutions remain skewed toward competition and capitalism. Strong forces have been emerging however, that are advocates of a more balanced approach. As testimony to this, we can witness for example the emergence of the human rights, civil rights and peace movements, the advances of feminism and environmentalism, and the increasing democracy within our systems of government over the last century.