Foundations of Dialectical Materialism

Taimur Rahman is an academic, political activist and the lead musician of Laal Band of Pakistan. He is based in Lahore. For details, visit the band’s site and facebook page.

Taimur Rehman

Marxism is Powerful because it is True. -V. I. Lenin

Every event, person, or great piece of work that influences history is bound to leave a legacy of myths.  Marxism, the theory and practice of the working-class movement, far from being the exception to the rule, epitomises this propensity.  Marx wrote in the 19th century during a period when capitalism was still emerging and revolutionising relations in Europe.  Lenin wrote:

Marxism is the system of Marx’s views and teachings.  Marx was the genius who continued and consummated the three main ideological currents of the nineteenth century, as represented by the three most advanced countries of mankind: classical German philosophy, classical English Political Economy, and French socialism combined with French revolutionary doctrines in general.[1]

On the basis of the consummation of the three most advanced ideological currents in the nineteenth century, Marx set out to analyse the economic laws of capitalist development.  Marx’s philosophical starting point was materialism.


Marx and Engels began their inquiry into the political economy of capitalism and history by challenging the epistemological basis of idealism (religious and philosophical idealism). 

Idealism in essence denies that matter exists independent of thought. For example, Plato’s philosophical idealism argued that real objects were the imperfect reflection of perfect “ideal types” that existed only in the realm of pure abstract thought.  Similarly, theology acknowledged “divine revelation” as the primary basis of knowledge.

On the other hand, materialism posited that matter exists independent of thought. Therefore, ideas were nothing other than the reflection of reality. Lenin said, “Materialism is the recognition of ‘objects in themselves,’ or outside the mind; ideas and sensations are copies or images of those objects. The opposite doctrine (idealism) claims that these objects do not exist ‘without the mind’; objects are ‘combinations of sensations.’”[2]

Economic Base

Marx and Engels broke from the intellectual tradition of idealism and undertook a materialist understanding of history by examining the conditions of existence of society.  Marx wrote in the German Ideology:

The premises from which we begin are not arbitrary ones, not dogmas, but real premises from which abstractions can only be made in the imagination.  They are the real individuals, their activity and the material conditions under which they live, both those that they find already existing and those produced by their activity.  These premises can thus be verified in a purely empirical way.

The first premise of human history is, of course, the existence of living human individuals.  Thus, the first fact to be established is the physical organisation of these individuals and their consequent relation to the rest of nature.[3]

Thus, for a Marxist scientist the first fact to be established was the physical organisation, in other words, the economic base of a society.


According to Marx, the superstructure of ideology arises from the economic base. Marx gave the best summary of this idea in the following passage. 

The general result at which I arrived and which, once won, served as a guiding thread for my studies, can be briefly formulated as follows:  In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces.  The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundations, on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness.  The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general.  It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.  At a certain stage of their development, the material productive forces of society come in conflict with the existing relations of production, or – what is but a legal expression for the same thing – with the property relations within which they have been at work hitherto.  From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters.  Then begins an epoch of social revolution.  With the change of the economic foundation of the entire immense superstructure is more or less rapidly transformed.  In considering such transformations a distinction should always be made between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, aesthetic or philosophic – in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out. Just as our opinion of an individual is not based on what he thinks of himself, so can we not judge of such a period of transformation by its own consciousness; on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained rather from the contradictions of material life, from the existing conflict between the social productive forces and the relations of production.

In simpler words, all societies need to engage in production in order to survive. In order to produce humans enter into social relations. These social relations accord with the level of development of society. The level of development of society and the consequent social relations are the economic base on which arises an ideological superstructure. The ideological superstructure is not only conditioned by the economic base, it in turn helps to consolidate the economic base. Thus, Marx pointed out that in any particular epoch economic relations determine juridical, philosophical, social, and human relations. Marx said:

The production of ideas, of conceptions, of consciousness, is at first directly interwoven with the material activity and the material intercourse of men, the language of real life.  Conceiving, thinking, the mental intercourse of men, appear at this stage as the direct efflux of their material behaviour.  The same applies to mental production as expressed in the language of politics, law, morality, religion, metaphysics, etc.—real, active men, as they are conditioned by a definite development of their productive forces and of the intercourse corresponding to these, up to its furthest forms.

Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life.

Therefore, Marx concluded that the dominating ideas of a particular epoch were the ideas of the dominating class. This superstructure of thought arose from the material conditions of production in order to justify and consolidate the dominance of the ruling class. Marx said:

The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.  The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the mental means of production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it.  The ruling ideas are nothing more than the idea expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas; hence of the relationships which make the one class the ruling one, therefore, the ideas of its dominance.

However, at a certain stage of development the economic base outstripps its corresponding superstructure. The old superstructure and the old relations of production become a fetter on the further development of production. Thereafter, a period of revolutionary transformation overthrows the old decrepit superstructure and establishes a new superstructure in correspondence with the new economic base. Thus, the forms of ownership and the entire ideological understanding of society undergo a rapid transformation.

Marx argued that one could discern stages in history in accordance with the division of labour (the forms of ownership and property are the juridical expression of the social division of labour). According to Marx the study of history revealed four stages of development.

The various stages of development in the division of labour are just so many different forms of ownership, i.e. the existing stage in the division of labour determines also the relations of individuals to one another with reference to the material, instruments, and product of labour.

…In broad outlines Asiatic, ancient, feudal, and modern bourgeois modes of production can be designated as progressive epochs in the economic formation of society.


Dialectics is the conception that the world is not stationary, static, or fixed but is in a constant process of change. Dialectics is the conception that everything is always in a process of birth and death, growth and destruction, integration and disintegration, generation and degeneration, living and dying. Dialectics is the conception that everything is in the process of becoming. Engels says:

The great basic thought that the world is not to be comprehended as a complex of ready-made things, but as a complex of processes, in which the things apparently stable no less than their mind images in our heads, the concepts, go through an uninterrupted change of coming into being and passing away… this great fundamental thought has, especially since the time of Hegel, so thoroughly permeated ordinary consciousness that in this generality it is now scarcely ever contradicted.  But to acknowledge this fundamental thought in words and to apply it in reality in detail to each domain of investigation are two different things. For dialectical philosophy nothing is final, absolute, sacred. It reveals the transitory character of everything and in everything; nothing can endure before it except the uninterrupted process of becoming and of passing away, of endless ascendancy from the lower to the higher.  And dialectical philosophy itself is nothing more than the mere reflection of this process in the thinking brain.[4]

Three simple laws of motion can capture the essence of dialectics:

The Three Laws of Dialectics

Unity of Opposites ~ The notion that an entity exists simultaneously with its opposite.  Day can only exist if there is such a thing as night.

Quantitative Changes lead to Qualitative Changes ~ The notion that opposites are always in the process of small qualitative changes.  As light recedes the day becomes darker.

Negation of Negation [Thesis – Antithesis – Synthesis] ~ The notion that at a particular decisive point even a small quantitative change leads to a qualitative change in the very essence of the object.  Towards the evening, the quantitative decrease in light converts the day into night. The notion that this process is never ending.  If light is the thesis and darkness the antithesis, day and night are the syntheses of this process. The dialectical motion of light and darkness creates the continuous process of day and night.

In conclusion, dialectics underscores the necessity of understanding every phenomenon as a process.

The Universal Law of Marxism

Marx concluded that all collisions in history were the result of the dialectical contradiction between the developing economic base and its corresponding superstructure. The class struggle is a reflection of this essential contradiction. Marx concludes:

Thus all collisions in history have their origin, according to our view, in the contradiction between the productive forces and the form of intercourse.[5]

The history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class-struggle.”[6]


Marx analysed the workings of the modern world and proved that the immanent contradictions in capitalist society inexorably lead to a future classless society.  That future classless society was termed socialism. Marx said:

The bourgeois relations of production are the last antagonistic form of the social process of production – antagonistic not in the sense of individual antagonism, but of one arising from the social conditions of life of the individuals; at the same time the productive forces developing in the womb of bourgeois society create the material conditions for the solution of that antagonism.  This social formation brings, therefore, the prehistory of human society to a close.

Thus, the establishment of socialism would inaugurate the beginning of a new period in human history in which man would no longer exploit man.



[1] V.I. Lenin Selected Works Vol. 1 (pg. 7)

[2] V.I. Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, pg. 14

[3] Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels, “The German Ideology” part one, International Publishers NewYork, (pg. 42)

[4] V.I. Lenin Selected Works Vol. 1 (pg. 10)

[5] Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels, “The German Ideology” part one, International Publishers NewYork.

[6] Karl Marx and Fredrick Engles, 1848, “The Manifesto of the Communist Party”, Foreign Languages Press Peking, 1970, (pg. 30)