Workers Hammer No. 212

Autumn 2010


Quote of the issue

Dialectical materialism and science

In 1939-40 the anti-Soviet opposition of Burnham and Shachtman in the then-Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party in the US maintained that dialectical materialism had no bearing on political positions. In the course of the factional struggle, Trotsky showed that the opposition’s rejection of dialectics and their substitution of the pragmatic method led to incorrect political conclusions. For those not familiar with dialectical materialism, Trotsky outlined the main points of its method and explained that the opposition’s attitude towards the nature of the Soviet Union reproduced point for point their attitude towards the dialectic. Trotsky’s document is reprinted in In Defence of Marxism.

Dialectical thinking is related to vulgar thinking in the same way that a motion picture is related to a still photograph. The motion picture does not outlaw the still photograph but combines a series of them according to the laws of motion….

We call our dialectic, materialist, since its roots are neither in heaven nor in the depths of our “free will”, but in objective reality, in nature. Consciousness grew out of the unconscious, psychology out of physiology, the organic world out of the inorganic, the solar system out of the nebulae. On all the rungs of this ladder of development, the quantitative changes were transformed into qualitative. Our thought, including dialectical thought, is only one of the forms of the expression of changing matter. There is place within this system for neither God, nor Devil, nor immortal soul, nor eternal norms of laws and morals. The dialectic of thinking, having grown out of the dialectic of nature, possesses consequently a thoroughly materialist character.

Darwinism, which explained the evolution of species through quantitative transformations passing into qualitative, was the highest triumph of the dialectic in the whole field of organic matter. Another great triumph was the discovery of the table of atomic weights of chemical elements and further the transformation of one element into another….

Marx, who in distinction from Darwin was a conscious dialectician, discovered a basis for the scientific classification of human societies in the development of their productive forces and the structure of the relations of ownership which constitute the anatomy of society. Marxism substituted for the vulgar descriptive classification of societies and states, which even up to now still flourishes in the universities, a materialistic dialectical classification. Only through using the method of Marx is it possible correctly to determine both the concept of a workers’ state and the moment of its downfall.

All this, as we see, contains nothing “metaphysical” or “scholastic”, as conceited ignorance affirms. Dialectic logic expresses the laws of motion in contemporary scientific thought. The struggle against materialist dialectics on the contrary expresses a distant past, conservatism of the petty-bourgeoisie, the self-conceit of university routinists and…a spark of hope for an after-life.

— “A petty-bourgeois opposition in the Socialist Workers Party”, Leon Trotsky, 15 December 1939