This question-and-answer format of a primer on the Marxist philosophy of dialectical materialism is the prepared text by Jose Ma. Sison for the first in a four-part series of webinars on his book, Basic Principles of Marxism-Leninism. The webinar was conducted by the Anakbayan-Europe and the National Democratic Online School on 9 August 2020. The source of the text is from the Facebook public group, “ILPS Solidarity”, with minor typo corrections by PRISM editors. The webinar was recorded live on Facebook, and can be watched on: https://www.facebook.com/watch/live/?v=937514303327399.
Questions on Dialectical Materialism
Answers of Jose Maria Sison to Questions by Anghelo Godino
First of the 4-Part Series of Webinars on Sison’s book, Basic Principles of Marxism-Leninism, conducted by the Anakbayan-Europe and the National Democratic Online School
August 9, 2020
1. We can sum up Marxism in three basic components: philosophy, political economy, and social science. We will discuss these three components for the duration of this series. Let us start with philosophy, which, in Marxism, is dialectical materialism. What were the political and economic landscape and dominant philosophical ideas during the time when Marx introduced dialectical materialism?
JMS: Politically, there were sharpening class tensions between the rising bourgeoisie and the people on one hand and the monarchy and the landed aristocracy on the other in Europe. While the bourgeoisie and monarchy could either clash as in the French Revolution of 1788-89 or compromise as in England, there were also sharpening class contradictions between the rising bourgeoisie and the proletariat which became manifest in the workers’ uprisings of 1848.
It was a time where free competition capitalism developed fastest in certain countries under the impetus of the industrial revolution and the bourgeoisie benefited from the primitive accumulation of capital and the application of science and technology in industry and agriculture. The primitive accumulation of capital included the plunder of colonies, the rapid proletarianization of peasants and the extremely long hours of work, from 12 to 16 hours or even more in factories.
The dominant philosophical ideas were idealist, rationalist in continental Europe and empiricist in England. Marx and Engels turned upside down and put on a materialist basis what was then the most developed idealist philosophy, that of Hegel who accounted for change with the use of dialectics. They also made use of Feuerbach’s materialism, whose recognition of sensuous human activity they brought to the level of critical-practical revolutionary activity.
Marx and Engels had German philosophy as their basic source in developing their dialectical materialist world outlook and method of knowing and acting. Consistent with their philosophy, they had British political economy as their basic source of knowledge for their critique of the capitalist economy and comprehension of its internal laws of motion. They had French social science as their major source of knowledge about the class struggle and the social revolution.
2. Let us clarify what materialism means in Marxist philosophy, as it might have another connotation in present times. What is materialism and what is the relationship of matter and consciousness?
JMS: From ancient times to the present, the basic struggle in philosophy has always been between materialism and idealism. As Engels simply put it, whether you are materialist or idealist depends on which is your starting point. If your starting point is matter, then you are a materialist. If your starting point is consciousness, then you are an idealist. It is therefore important to know the correct relationship of matter and consciousness.
Science has shown that the emergence of Homo sapiens came quite recently, some 60,000 years ago, in the long evolution of nature. Thus, non-thinking matter arose far, far ahead of human consciousness. On this basis, the materialist declares that matter precedes consciousness in time but consciousness is the highest development of matter. But the objective idealist argues that a supernatural being with its divine consciousness preceded and created the material universe.
Of course, the materialist can shoot back that humankind has been the one responsible for creating or imagining the supernatural, from animism through polytheism to monotheism. The subjective idealist can butt in to say that he is indifferent to what came first, matter or consciousness, and lays stress on personal experience and empirical investigation and analysis and tries to make a positivist appropriation of science for seeing reality through appearances. There is a dizzying plethora of subjective idealist philosophies, often appropriating a mechanistic kind of materialism but also falling into metaphysics.
3. How about the word dialectics, what does that mean?
JMS: Dialectics can be understood narrowly as simply the exchange of arguments and counter-arguments as in the Socratic dialogues. But in Hegel’s development of idealist philosophy in the 19th century, he posited the self-development of thought through thesis and anti-thesis resulting in synthesis which is a new and higher kind of thesis. This idealist dialectical process of ideational change is supposed to be realized subsequently in historical and social change.
Marx and Engels adopted the concept of dialectics but put it on a materialist basis and rejected the idealist basis. They also rejected the Hegelian notion of the dialectical process of leading to the synthesis as the final and highest point of development. They put forward the law of contradiction as existent and operating in material objects and in the process of knowing them. Engels put forward three basic laws of contradiction or materialist dialectics: the negation of the negation, the interpenetration or unity of opposites and the quantitative change to qualitative change.
Marx thoroughly applied materialist dialectics in the critique of the capitalist political economy. He observed and analyzed all the contradictory factors in the capitalist economy: between capital and labor and within capital as well as within labor to understand how changes occur within the capitalist system and how the class struggle between the bourgeoisie and proletariat would take the direction of installing the proletariat as the new ruling class and establishing socialism.
4. Marx and Engels developed dialectical materialism. How did it differ from the dialectics of Hegel and materialist basis of Feuerbach?
JMS: For having a materialist basis, the dialectics of Marx and Engels differs from that of Hegel, which has an idealist basis. Change arises from the contradictions within material objects or societies and not as a mere copy or reflection of the thinking process of any kind of supernatural spirit or human intellect.
Furthermore, change does not end with the Hegelian synthesis or with the Prussian state as the highest realization of thought in history. Marxist dialectical materialists assert that change is permanent. Even the classless society of communism, which is a tremendous advance from capitalism through socialism, is not the end of history.
The materialism of Feuerbach radically departs from idealist philosophy and recognizes the conscious and sensuous character of humans but falls short of dialectical materialism, which entails the critical analysis of society and the revolutionary activity of the masses in order to make a fundamental change of society.
5. The essence of dialectical materialism is that everything is in the process of constant change. Can you explain this process? What is the basis of change?
JMS: Even before the appearance of Homo sapiens on earth, the process of constant change in nature has been going on through the law of contradictory motions among the atoms and among the molecules and among the biggest objects such as the oceans and land through climatic changes and movements of tectonic plates. Scientists have shown the geological changes, the big epochal climatic changes and the development of the flora and fauna on earth.
While the process of constant change in nature is evolutionary and relatively slow, the process of constant change in society is comparatively rapid and revolutionary from one stage of social development to another because of the cognitive ability of Homo sapiens to learn from social practice, which includes production, class struggle and scientific experiment.
Primitive communal societies took more than 50 to 60 thousand years to exist but it took only some 6000 years for human society to develop from slave society through the feudal society to capitalist society. The advance of society has been more conspicuously cumulative, especially since the advent of metallurgy, literacy and class struggle. Capitalism started to grow in the city states of the Mediterranean in the 13th century and look at how capitalism grew even faster upon the adoption of electro-mechanical and chemical processes since the Industrial Revolution.
6. In order for us to understand better, please give us concrete examples of the following three laws of dialectics, namely: 1) the negation of the negation, 2) the unity of opposites, and 3) the law of quantitative to qualitative change.
JMS: To explain negation of the negation: There is no social formation or phenomenon that is not preceded by its opposite and that is not subject to negation that leads to a new formation or phenomenon. Capitalism was previously a negation of feudalism and in turn capitalism is subject to negation by socialism.
To explain the unity of opposites: Contradictory factors, such as capital and labor or the bourgeoisie and the working class, are bound up together and their relative unity and temporary balance determine the character of capitalist society under the rule of the bourgeoisie. But the bourgeoisie and working class have contradictory interests and the class struggle ensues and when the working class succeeds in defeating the bourgeoisie, it becomes the new ruling class in a socialist society.
To explain the law of quantitative to qualitative change: Substantive quantitative changes must occur to result in qualitative changes. Take water for instance, at 1 degree to 100 degrees Celsius, it is stable as liquid. Below 1 degree, it becomes ice and beyond 100 degrees, it starts to steam and evaporate. In the process of social change, workers’ strikes and mass protests can result in reforms and retention of the capitalist system but the crisis can become so serious that the capitalist ruling class cannot rule in the old way and becomes even more oppressive and exploitative, then the masses rise in revolution to overthrow the ruling system and establish socialism.
7. What is meant by the law of contradiction being universal and particular?
JMS: In being universal, the law of contradiction applies to all of nature and society and the totality of more particular categories and things. At the highest level of generalization, the law of contradiction applies to the study of all natural and social sciences. But as you go down to more particular categories of things and fields of study the contradictions to deal with take different forms.
Let us start with the general relationship and contradiction between society and nature. Society is part of nature and uses nature in production and in the maintenance of society. The relationship between nature and society can be friendly or unfriendly depending on the handling by society of contradictions as well as harmonies with nature. It is now increasingly a problem that the system of monopoly capitalism has abused and plundered the environment to an extent that catastrophe is imminent and threatens the very existence of human society.
For a long time in the life of human society, the primitive communal life persisted. There was no class struggle but a very low kind of social practice and life of hard struggle against the vagaries of nature, with the most rudimentary tools and methods of production. Upon the advent of class society, the law of contradiction takes the form of the class struggle, mainly between the slave owning class and the slaves in society, between the landlords and the serfs in feudal society and between the capitalists and the working class in capitalist society.
8. What are principal and secondary aspects?
JMS: In any kind of class society, there are several kinds of contradictions at work. Let us take the case of the current Philippine society. We oftentimes say that the Filipino people are waging a revolutionary struggle for national and social liberation. National liberation takes into account domination by foreign monopoly capitalism, especially US imperialism. Social liberation takes into account the more direct oppression and exploitation inflicted on the people by the local exploiting classes of big compradors, landlords and bureaucrat capitalist who also act as agents of foreign domination.
Because the US has relinquished direct political rule since 1946, the Filipino people confront the local ruling system and engage in a civil war with it in order to achieve the people’s democratic revolution through protracted people’s war. But if US imperialism launches a war of aggression against the Philippines, then the Filipino people wage mainly a war of national liberation and identify US imperialism as their principal adversary on top of its local puppets. The main form of contradiction changes from civil war to a national war against foreign aggression.
9. Can you please tell us a concrete example of how several contradictions can be at work at the same time in the same thing or process?
JMS: In the explanation that I have just made, I spoke of handling the national contradiction with foreign monopoly capitalism and domestic social contradiction and applying the highest form of revolutionary struggle, be it civil war or national war against foreign aggression. We determine the principal and secondary contradictions, depending on circumstances, even as several types of contradictions co-exist and the Filipino people struggle against foreign and local adversaries in varying degrees.
10. Is there anything that is not in the process of change?
JMS: All things are always in a process of change, that is imperceptible to the naked eye for a while and then becomes conspicuous when a qualitative change occurs. There is always a contradiction or set of contradictions that we have to deal with in order to strengthen the revolutionary movement and advance it towards victory.
But that which may be considered an external factor in relative terms can become an obvious internal factor in the process of revolutionary war. I have already explained US imperialism possibly becoming an outright aggressor. China is another possible outright aggressor. It has already occupied and militarized the seven artificial islands in the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines.
11. Let us also discuss the theory of knowledge. According to Marx, social practice is the basis and source of knowledge. What did he mean by that? And what exactly is social practice?
JMS: Indeed, social practice is the basis and source of knowledge. Mao has explained in a comprehensive and simple way the basic elements of social practice in “Where Do Correct Ideas Come From?” From production, class struggle and scientific experiment. From time immemorial, man has differentiated himself from other animal forms by engaging in production with the tools that he himself has fashioned and thereby surviving and advancing to higher forms of production.
As societies have grown in size and class societies have developed, the class struggle has become the impetus to higher levels of social practice and knowledge. To be able to rule society and overcome domestic and external adversaries, the exploiting classes have compelled the exploited classes to produce the surplus product for sustaining and developing the mode of production and the superstructure of society.
On the basis of the advance of science and technology, the capitalist system has made far greater material and cultural achievements as well as far bigger wars than previous forms of societies. But the capitalist system has been able to grow only with oppression and exploitation of the working class. But the working class has become armed ideologically politically and organizationally to be able to dig the grave of the capitalist system and establish the socialist system.
12. Mao also contributed to the theory of knowledge, and stated that there are two processes for acquiring knowledge: 1) the perceptual or empirical and 2) the cognitive or rational. Can you explain what these processes are?
JMS: By perceptual or empirical process, he meant doing concrete investigation and gathering the facts, the sense data from your perception and experience. Mao said that without investigation and without the facts, you have no right to speak. You have to go to the peasant masses to learn from them about their dire conditions, their needs and demands. Thus, you learn and acquire the factual basis for arousing, organizing and mobilizing the peasant masses for agrarian revolution.
By cognitive or rational process, he meant analysing the facts, drawing the truth from the facts and making conclusions and judgments. On the basis of adequate concrete information that you have at a given time, the leading organ or collective unit can make the plan and set forth the tasks for arousing, organizing and mobilizing the peasant masses for agrarian revolution.
The higher level of knowledge is applied in revolutionary practice to raise its level of development. The higher level of revolutionary practice leads to the development of a higher level of knowledge. There is a wave-like advance in the alternating rises in the levels of revolutionary theory and practice. There is a dialectical interaction of rising knowledge and rising practice.
13. What are empiricism and dogmatism and what are the dangers of both?
JMS: Empiricism means limiting knowledge to the personal experience of an individual or a small group and not drawing further knowledge from the collective practice and accumulated knowledge of the entire Party and revolutionary movement. Empiricism prevents understanding the various requirements of the revolutionary movement and the general direction that the movement must take. Because of the narrow-mindednes, fragmentariness and short-sightedness that empiricism breeds, the empiricist can go blind and astray politically.
Dogmatism can be simply book worship without any social investigation and analysis and simply mouthing jargon and generalities without understanding the concrete meaning of the terms used in reading materials and discussions. The dogmatists may sound the most learned with big words or appear most revolutionary by urging everyone to leap into communist society but they are ignorant of the hard work and struggle that it takes to advance the revolution from one stage to another.
The phrase monger or windbag flies over the concrete reality and over the ideological, political and organizational tasks needed to carry out the revolution and lead the masses. The dogmatists deny the stages and phases that the revolutionary movement go through in order to advance surely and steadily. They can mislead others to an adventurist or putschist line and then upon its failure they make them lose confidence in the revolution.
14. Dialectical materialism and the theory of knowledge—why are they relevant today?
JMS: The study of dialectical materialism and the theory of knowledge is always necessary and relevant. Dialectical materialism provides us with the materialist-scientific outlook and the method of thinking and acting to understand and solve problems and fight the enemy more effectively than ever. The Marxist theory of knowledge guides us in obtaining and accumulating knowledge from revolutionary practice and gaining further knowledge to improve our work and style of work and achieve bigger and better results in the revolutionary struggle.
No revolution led by proletariat can advance without ideological building of the communist party through the study of dialectical materialism and Marxist theory of knowledge and related matters. There is a calibration of studies through basic, intermediate and advanced courses in the communist party. There are refresher and post-curricular studies by organs and units of the party. There are continuous studies in the course of work and studying current problems and issues.
It is always the duty of the cadres and members to promote and realize the curricular and extracurricular studies of newer or younger party members. This is the best way to ensure the consolidation and advancement of the party and the revolutionary movement. When we learn in concrete terms the friends and enemies of the revolution and the principles, policies and line of the revolutionary movement, we are well guided in our revolutionary practice and we are encouraged to carry out our tasks in the service of the people and their revolution.###