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Dialectical materialism

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-N013-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved June 19, 2024, from

Article Summary

Dialectical materialism is the official name given to Marxist-Leninist philosophy by its proponents in the Soviet Union and their affiliates elsewhere. The term, never used by either Karl Marx or Friedrich Engels, was the invention of the Russian Marxist Georgii Plekhanov, who first used it in 1891. Engels, however, favourably contrasted ‘materialist dialectics’ with the ‘idealist dialectics’ of Hegel and the German idealist tradition, and the ‘dialectical’ outlook of Marxism with the ‘mechanistic’ or ‘metaphysical’ standpoint of other nineteenth-century materialists.

Dialectical materialism proclaims allegiance to the methods of empirical science and opposition to all forms of scepticism which deny that science can know the nature of reality. Dialectical materialists reject religious belief generally, denying the existence of non-material or supernatural entities (such as God or an immortal human soul). Unlike other forms of materialism, however, dialectical materialists maintain that the fundamental laws governing both matter and mind are dialectical in the sense in which that term is used in the philosophy of G.W.F. Hegel.

Although dialectical materialism is supposed to constitute the philosophical underpinnings of Marxism, Marx’s only major contribution to it was his materialist conception of history. The more fundamental philosophical views of dialectical materialism have their main source in the writings of Engels, especially Anti-Dühring (1878), Dialectics of Nature (1875–82) and Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy (1886). To this last work Engels appended the eleven ‘Theses on Feuerbach’ written by Marx in 1845, which contrasted the ‘old’ or ‘contemplative’ materialism with the practically oriented materialism which was to be the basis of the proletarian movement. Further developments of dialectical materialism are found in writings by V.I. Lenin and subsequent Soviet writers. Lenin’s chief additions were his critique of ‘empirio-criticism’ (the empiricist phenomenalism of certain Russian followers of Ernst Mach, who argued that matter was to be reduced to sense data), and his conception of the ‘partisanship’ of all philosophical views.

Citing this article:
Wood, Allen W.. Dialectical materialism, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-N013-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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