By Steven Gimbel, Ph.D., Gettysburg College
Both the optimists and pessimists buy into a picture of human progress. Both believe that positive human development, human evolution, social advancement, and growth are necessary features of reality. But what was Karl Marx’s idea of the dialectic?
The Progress of Human Society
During the first half of the twentieth century, things seemed to be progressing in the western world. Industrialization led to modernism; the world was a radically different place. Technology was emerging that completely transformed the ways humans lived.
For many, the concerns of modern life did not resemble those of pre-modern agrarian life. Now, people were no longer concerned with mere survival, but were worried about what to do with leisure time. Medical advances were increasing human life spans. It seemed like there could be little doubt that the history of humanity was one of triumphant growth and development. Again, this was a view shared by cultural optimists and pessimists alike.
Perhaps, one of the most influential cultural optimists was Karl Marx. Marx inherited a view of history from the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Hegel thought that all of history was following a pre-determined path that would ultimately lead to the final perfect state of human freedom.
Learn more about the birth of Sociology.
The Hegelian Dialectic
This path was determined by a process called the dialectic. In each era, the reigning state of the world would create a fundamental opposition. For Hegel, this dialectic was the mind of God coming to understand its own being. At first God is the subject, the thing that thinks. But then to think, you need an object, that is, something to think about.
So, God is both the subject and the object. One state always creates the opposite. You can’t have a master without having a slave, since without the slave; the master wouldn’t be a master. But when you put a thing and its opposite together, the two would clash, each wanting to be free of the other—the thing that exists in and of itself.
Ultimately, this conflict between them destroys them both, leaving only the core commonalities they share that would then become the basis for the next higher stage of reality. This, too, would create a fundamental opposition and on and on the process goes until ultimately, the universe ended up where it needed to be.
This is a transcript from the video series Redefining Reality: The Intellectual Implications of Modern Science. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Karl Marx and the Class Struggle
Marx kept this picture of reality as a historical process working itself out. But instead of everything being an immaterial mode of God’s consciousness as Hegel thought, Marx claimed that the universe was made of material things rather than abstract states of being. Marx suggested that the dialectical process of cultural and economic development was the result of class-on-class struggles.
Each new socio-economic stage would provide both the advancements in human life as well as the seeds of its own destruction. The revolution that would destroy the state of socio-economic being was necessary to allow humanity to advance to the next stage.
From Slavery to Capitalism
For Marx, slavery, for example, was a necessary evil. It was by owning slaves that people began to create the physical infrastructure of true culture. But while the institution of slavery was necessary for human progress, it was also necessary that the slaves would revolt. Their freedom and humanity had been stripped from them.
The tension between masters and slaves would lead to a revolution which would destroy the entire social system and leave a new one in place: Feudalism in which people were not owned by others—at least not directly. These workers were at least nominally free, because the lords couldn’t dictate their every action, but they did control the land that produced the food that was needed for survival.
Eventually, there was a peasant revolt and the result was a capitalist society in which it wasn’t land owners who controlled the society, but the factory owners who controlled the means of production.
Learn more about the reality of money.
Capitalism: A Step in Human Development
While we often think of Marx as an opponent of capitalism, Marx did not think capitalism was an inherently evil or bad system. Indeed, he thought it was a necessary step in economic history. Capitalism has to occur, and it serves a very important role in human development.
Capitalism is driven by the desire to maximize profit and this leads to the minimization of labor and resources in the process of production. The cheaper and easier you can make something, the more profit you get to keep. As a result, the capitalists are always trying to figure out how to make much more stuff than we need and how to make it quickly, easily, and cheaply. The result is the elimination of scarcity, whereby human beings have everything they need.
But in making this happen, the laborers have become alienated, dehumanized, and removed from meaningful relations they have with each other, themselves, and with the things they create. Eventually, they will have had enough. We are now set for the next step, and the revolution of the workers.
A Communistic Utopia
Moving through a time of collective ownership, we ultimately arrive at the communistic utopia. In the utopia, because the capitalists have figured out how to satisfy our needs using a minimum of resources and effort, we can spend relatively little time tending to them. We have the luxury of doing what we really love, whether it’s fishing, making music, writing poetry, studying the universe, or making people laugh.
The fundamental picture here is that human beings are essentially social animals. We live in community, and we use that community to figure out how to solve our problems. But the structures needed to solve one set of problems ultimately cause another set of problems until we finally figure out how to live together problem-free.
Common Questions about Karl Marx and the Dialectic
For the sociologists, industrialization had led to modernism. The world in early twentieth century was a radically different place.
Marx inherited a view of history from the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.
Marx suggested that the dialectical process of cultural and economic development was the result of class-on-class struggles.