Dialectical Materialism Outline

An Educator's Guide for Understanding and Action

Rich Gibson 2004

Dialectical Materialism is the study of how things change, because they do- assuming the study will be part of that change. To work with this outlook, it helps to first remember to abstract. Abstraction is like moving a microscope out, and in, to better understand something. One example of abstraction in dealing with social issues would be to ask, "What is the history of this, and its social context now?" Since the task of teachers is to change people, dialectical materialism should be of considerable interest. Do things change? How?

Once the general setting, and the particular object, is in view, dialectics looks for internal and external relations. Internal relations might be, for example, in examining the U.S., to look for levels of inequality, and within that color-coding: racism. External relations could be, then, the relations of the US and, say, China, vis a vis trade, competition for oil, import and export issues, monetary problems, etc. In a student, we might look at particular weaknesses and strengths, then try to determine what in the child's background, history, might have set this up. The idea that all of history is the history of class struggle is key to this analysis.

Dialectical materialism is, therefore, a study of relationships. In school, it is fairly clear that doing classroom reform without doing community social and economic reform (against hunger for example), makes no sense.

Dialectical materialism is also the study of transformation, perhaps best summed up in these two words: overcoming, or revolution.

The crux of dialectical materialism is that we can understand and change our world using methods developed over centuries, at great sacrifice. The key to understanding dialectical materialism is understanding the role of the conscious action of people, deepened as theory reflects on and recreates social practice.

I. Materialism

A. Nothing comes from nothing. Things exist and they have a history. In the beginning was the world, not the word, though while the world preceded words, words are extraordinarily important in interpreting and remaking the world.

1. The physical world and our minds interact. When we interpret the world, we reinvent it. "I am, therefore I think." Ideas reflect and recreate the material world and are themselves a material force when acted on by masses of people. Ideas refract and recreate matter-and become social forces when adopted by masses of people. .

2.. All things are interrelated, interpenetrating, interdependent. Nothing is random, nothing isolated. Of course, some things are more directly connected than others.

3. The motive forces of history are: production (and reproduction/sexuality), the struggle for rational knowledge (which would include, for example, aesthetics), and the incessant historical struggle for freedom and creativity, i.e., truth, which rises from social practice.

In schools this means that we must look to the roots of schooling, mainly in the economy and in the role of government, both set up by the current economic system: capitalism. That would be where to look to answer the question: Why have school? Broad answers might be: warehousing kids, intellectual and ideological training, construction of real and false hope, creation of the next generation of workers, to serve as huge markets (textbooks, buses, salaries, etc.) nation building, feeding grounds for the military. and sites of class struggle. As in anything under capitalism, schools are contested terrain.

Because things change, materialism and dialectics are necessarily connected.

II. Dialectics: the study of contradictions--how things change.
Matter is in constant motion. All things are also processes. All things are composed of contradictions.

A. "Laws" of Dialectics (which are interrelated too).

1. Unity & Struggle of Opposites (contradictions: one becomes two)

1. Struggle is permanent, unity temporary.

2. Internal motion is primary over external.

3. Find the main contradiction and the primary side of that contradiction (which will prevail?).

2. Quantity becomes Quality

1. Quantitative change adds up to a qualitative LEAP. Quantitative change has limits which, exceeded, transform into qualitative change.

3. Reinventing of the New (Negation of the Negation)

1. Change is irrevocable, not circular, but like a spiral. When things change, we witness something entirely new, yet carrying forward aspects of what it was.

Consider this process in teaching reading. You and a student join together (unity and struggle) in a wide variety of processes over time (quantity) and the student learns to read (a leap of quality). While this student is really the same person, he/she is also a literate person, different (reinventing of the new), bringing forward new contradictions (what to read and to what end?).

In our world today, the contradiction between collective nature of production and private, individual ownership of what is produced gives rise to inequality, social classes, and class struggle. The working classes of the world, and the owning classes, have only contradiction in common.

B. Categories of Dialectics (to enrich analysis)

1. Appearance and essence (this is how knowledge moves)

2. Form and content (the cover and the book)

3. Relative and absolute (truth is both: we know, but can always know more)

4. Finite and Infinite (we teach one kid, and reach into the next century)

5. Actual and Potential (the illiterate become literate)

6. Chance and Necessity (the luck sometimes within hard work)

7. Particular and the General (a particular child within a school and community)

8. Likeness and Difference (useful in examining racism/sexism)

9. Cause and Effect (where do correct ideas come from?)

10. Objective and Subjective (the world exists, you can grasp and change it: people make their own histories, but not in circumstances they choose)

11. Theory and Practice (each informs the other: the struggle for evidence, for example)

Laws and categories are convenient structures placed on reality which is infinitely intricate and ever-changing. Every analysis captures a moment which is complex--and gone. Because of profound social inequality, all ideas are partisan, stamped with the interests of class. Our grasp on reality is tested and enriched only through practice. This is the only vision of the world which calls for a rational examination-testing in the real world-- of itself by human beings. © Richard Gibson 2004

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