September 16, 2015

The Dialectical Progression of History

Kurt Biray

History is accumulative. Our history is the most pivotal determinant of our future.  In other words, what happens now is directly interconnected to what will occur in the near and long-term future. The rhetorical concepts of “fate” and “destiny” are simply non-existent in a world that is governed by the principles of science. This applies to the natural sciences but also characterizes the social sciences as the dynamics of political and economic systems throughout the globe are highly dependent on history itself. 

History is integral for understanding our increasingly intricate society. It lays the foundation for explaining certain trends and events that we witness throughout our lives and therefore, can be fully utilized to predict and shape our own future and the future of our planet. When speaking of sociological disturbances and distributions of wealth or even modern-day political and economic systems, history plays an essential role in explaining humanity's societal and economic development and progress.

This compelling correlation is clearly demonstrated by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels’ theory of Historical Materialism. This particular methodology was developed from dialectical idealism and was created and used by Georg Hegel, a German philosopher who heavily influenced both Marx and Engels and their conceptions of history. Hegel's dialectic (historical process of change) can be defined as based on the ongoing opposition or conflict between two interacting forces. His dialectic can be divided into three parts: the proposition or thesis (e.g., Ancien Régime), the contradictory proposition or antithesis (e.g., the French bourgeoisie and proletariat) and the synthesis of the first two parts (e.g., the French Revolution). In other words, the contradiction between the thesis and antithesis is resolved by a synthesis or "new thesis", and the process is repeated.

Hegelian Idealism:

The dialectical method for understanding the movement of history thoroughly illustrates the unity and conflict between antagonistic ideas or concepts and their reconciliation, resulting in another cycle of conflicts. Hegel used this systematic approach to interpret the whole of history pertaining to politics, philosophy, religion and other disciplines. Philosophy and thought are central to understanding the dialectical formula as Hegelian Idealism demonstrates that historical development and consciousness advance through the conflict between ideas. That is, the opposing ideas, beliefs, views of the world and of oneself and the means for realizing them throughout history have determined societal existence and reality itself. This mind over matter approach for understanding historical development explains that ideals shape the material world and the conflict and unity of opposites within society.

Hegel’s historical dialectic was purely based on “modes of consciousness” as he explained that throughout history, freedom of consciousness and individual subjectivity had progressed and accumulated. Using his dialectical formula, he separated the whole of history into different stages or “modes of consciousness” in which virtue (the human capacity for reasoning) accumulates throughout history. His notion of virtue and reason is defined by people acquiring their own freedom of consciousness and therefore being able to make their own decisions freely in a liberal and modernized nation-state. This dialectical transition, driven by numerous ideological and socio-political clashes throughout history, strives for the freedom of mankind as the ultimate and final aim. 

Modes of Consciousness:

Ancient civilizations
Serfdom and Middle Ages
Modern Society
- Only the despot and state leaders have freedom of consciousness
- Freedom of consciousness given to royalty, nobles and knights but is however severely restricted to the masses
- Freedom of consciousness is ‘supposedly’ universal
- "Loose ends" of Hegel's dialectic could not address the problems of poverty and unemployment

The Materialist Interpretation of the Dialectical Formula:

Marx and Engels envisioned a very similar paradigm to explain historical transition and accumulation. The only difference between the Hegelian and Marxist dialectical interpretations is that Marx and Engels had taken the Hegelian methodology out of its metaphysical context and fused it with their own philosophical theory known as Dialectical Materialism. This Marxist epistemology attests that life and existence are purely based on material processes and unlike the idealism of Hegel's philosophy, adheres to a matter over mind framework. Marx "turned Hegel on his head", attesting that material conditions not only shape philosophy and thought but also the social fabric of society.

Dialectical materialism pertains to the evolution of the natural and material world and the idea of matter being in constant motion. All forms of matter are created, develop or grow, and finally perish due to their internal contradictions. Following a dialectical process, matter is constantly changing, serving as the material basis for all of reality.

In Dialectics of Nature, Frederick Engels explained that the dialectical movement of matter is clearly applicable to the social sciences. The understanding and theory behind historical and societal development was defined by Marx as "the materialist conception of history" and by Marxists today as Historical Materialism. Economics serves as the base for this dialectical progress because it is the economic structure of society which generates the material conditions and requirements of life. In other words, the means of production (what we use to produce goods and services) and the relations of production (social relationships – class relations - that people must enter into in order to produce goods and services) determine and produce the material things needed for human survival.

Instead of modes of consciousness, historical materialism explains history as a series of “modes of production” with the inception of each mode being completely dependent on the presence and failure of the former. The modes analyzed by Marx and Engels were made clearly distinguishable by their forms of means of production, means of subsistence and division of labour. The following characteristics portray the type of economies functioning in each mode and how they’ve evolved and progressed throughout the time of human civilization. The materialism of Marx is purely scientific and empirical (treating economics and society both scientifically) and asserts that the specific economy functioning in each mode of production makes up the real foundation for the superstructure of society as a whole (legal, social and political structures). This means that throughout history, everything within societal existence was dependent on the coexisting economic structure of society of that time period. It is this economic foundation (means of production + relations of production) that shapes the superstructure of society and the superstructure, in turn, maintains and legitimates the economic base. In A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859), Marx emphasized this correlation very closely.

Spiraling Class Struggle: 

History is simply a train of different forms of social activity generated by and implementing modes of production. With economic forces being the motor of history, it is the ongoing conflict between social classes that drives historical and social development. The different classes and social hierarchies existing throughout history and even today stem from their corresponding means and relations of production. 

Modes of Production:

Primitive Communism

Ancient civilizations

Serfdom and Middle Ages

Capitalism (Modern Society)

-Dictatorship of the Proletariat
-Hunter and gatherer societies
- Means of production, means of subsistence and division of labour extremely simplistic
- Classless and stateless
- Means of production, means of subsistence and division of labour  simplistic
- Social hierarchy is complex (patricians, landowners,
freemen, slaves, etc.)
- Means of production, means of subsistence and division of labour  simplistic
- Social hierarchy of medieval society is complex (royalty, knights, landowners, journeymen, serfs, etc.)
- Dictatorship of the
Capitalist Class
- Means of production, means of subsistence and division of labour increasingly complex
- Mainly two contending classes (proletariat vs. bourgeoisie)

-Bourgeois society and capitalist system overthrown
- Only one class left (proletariat) eventually owning the means of production

In The Communist Manifesto (1848), Karl Marx asserted that all of history is defined by class struggle and that humanity's advancement depended on this constant opposition between the oppressed and the oppressor. The capitalist system, which he obviously was most concerned with, was tending to narrow down the number of classes to only two: proletariat (the working-class) and the bourgeoisie (the capitalist class). In order for humanity to progress further and class struggle to be finally resolved, the dialectical transition to the communist mode of production must occur. By overthrowing the bourgeoisie and the capitalist state, the working class can embark on the proletarian revolution therefore establishing self-rule and governance (dictatorship of the proletariat) and subsequently, the public ownership of the means of production (socialism). Only after the collectivist principles of economic equality, social justice and peoples' democracy are firmly entrenched into the social fabric of society can humanity position itself to enter the classless and stateless epoch of communism.

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