Was New Labour indistinguishable from the Tories? Has capitalism been restored in Cuba? Is China an imperialist power? Is capitalism ripe for revolution? These are just some of the big analytical questions which face socialists today. To solve them we have to think dialectically.
Dialectics is a philosophical method discovered by ancient Greek philosophers, rekindled by the Eighteenth century thinker Hegel and given a systematic materialist basis by Karl Marx. It understands all reality, essentially, as matter in motion.
Today, with the exception of a few “new age” mystics, most people have no problem with the idea of scientific Materialism. Materialism is the basis of all scientific knowledge, and it says simply that reality has an objective, concrete independence: there is nothing beyond nature – no supernatural god, fate or destiny. The laws of nature are to be found within nature.
Few people, either, will have a problem with the idea that this material reality is in a constant process of change and transformation. Under a laboratory microscope apparently dead matter is seen to be a mass of living cells and organisms. Scientists have discovered proof that the universe itself is still expanding.
But what are the laws of this motion? Can we begin to discern general features of the way things change? Can we codify these laws without imposing some abstract scheme or model on our investigations?
Marxists recognise the danger of this, but still believe that the essential laws of motion – both of nature and society – can be codified. The first attempts to do this used traditional, or formal, logic. The Greek philosopher, Aristotle, systematised these laws which still hold good – within certain limits – to this day.
At the centre of these theories was the idea that a thing is equal to itself and cannot therefore be at the same time equal to something else. Crucial as this idea was for the development of arithmetic, basic accounting and the categorisation of the natural world, it contained a basic flaw. It could not account for change, for a process of becoming.
It is precisely when things are in a process of development from one thing into something else, that new and higher forms of logic are needed. Dialectics applied to a study of all social and physical phenomena show that “something” can be itself and at the same time be in the process of becoming “something else”.
There are several laws governing change. One of the most important is the law of the transformation of quantity into quality: the idea that small, incremental (quantitative) changes can lead, at a certain point, to a dramatic and complete qualitative change.
These laws cannot be imposed upon any phenomenon schematically. Only by a careful study of the origin, nature and development of the subject can we discover how this law operates in any particular case.
The process of revolution under capitalism is a good example. Those who see the road to socialism as a series of small quantitative changes – reforms – fly in the face of experience.
Social and political reforms which improve the condition of the working class under capitalism are welcome; in times of expansion and rising profits the capitalist class and its government can accommodate them. They may even welcome them if they provide new markets for them.
But such piecemeal reforms, at a certain point, collide with the further development of capitalism as high wages, welfare and even political rights cramp the ability of the capitalist class to prosper.
The struggle for reforms, or the defence of existing ones from attack, can suddenly blow apart the whole institutional framework (parliaments, trade union/employer forums) in which the reforms were granted and overseen; reform gives rise to revolution and, of course, its opposite – counter-revolution.
The contradictions of a system accumulated slowly over many years suddenly burst to the surface of society. The small talk of parliamentary debate gives way to the actions of millions on the streets. The whole character of change speeds up; change is drawn on a huge canvas. The key scientific task in politics is to locate the precise nature of the contradictions. What degree of reform is acceptable and which intolerable to sustain, which will mesh into the fabric of society and which will tear it apart?
A scientific understanding of the system, of its processes of change, of the contradictions in the enemy camp as well as our own are vital for any party that wants to lead the struggle, not just tail behind it.
A commitment to dialectical thinking is, in and of itself, no guarantee of success. The universities of Stalinist Russia were full of self-proclaimed experts in dialectical logic who – when it came to concrete reality – could not tell their arse from their elbow (to use a famous Marxist phrase). But without some attempt to understand change systematically, would-be revolutionaries will always be lost in a sea of change. Two thousand years ago the philosophers discovered that “everything flows”. Only scientific socialism has the answer to the question: “which way?”