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Karl Marx’s Dialectical Materialism: Appraisal

Karl Marx’s Dialectical Materialism: an Appraisal


This is a political and economic ideology spearheaded by Karl Marx. It was prepared by the whole course of the social, economic and political development of man. It was especially informed by the contradictions inherent in the prevailing capitalist system of the time. This is the struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. Marxism is a scientific philosophical world outlook that embraced nature and the society a whole. It created the theoretical basis by which the communist consciously remolded the society. Here, Marx did not pay much attention to metaphysical matters; he was concerned with matter of fact and empirical. In chapter three, materialism implied for Marx a radical rejection of religion, indeed a militant atheism. This is so because religion is one of; the great conservative social forces, materialism had for Marx, as for many others a connotation of radicalism. In the fourth place, materialism and dialectic meant for Marx the suggestion of a new and more far–reaching revolution. Thus in the last resort materialism had for Marx an ethical meaning. But in general sense, materialism is any philosophical doctrine which holds that life, consciousness and the human reason are caused by a material process which simply exist and is not itself created or cause by a conscious thinking being or beings.



At this period of history in which we find ourselves emerged and sublimed in many similar and variant theories about the universe and phenomena, it is of particular interest to expose and re-examine the theory proposed by Karl Marx and later advanced by his disciples since his physical departure from existential history. In this work, I wish to expose his historical background, his intellectual development and then the theory which he propounded with specific reference to his “Dialectical materialism”. Before I proceed, I think it is necessary to acquaint you with the meaning of the terms as used in the present work.

The word “Dialectics” is originally Greek. It means discussion or argument and came to mean in Greek philosophy, especially in the dialogues of Plato, discussion following a special pattern.

In the same sense, “Dialectic” has for Marx and Hegel an implication of progress and dynamism. In short it was for them a law of logic. But while Hegel applied this development, in the dialectical sense, to conflict or contradict between one nation and another, Marx applied it to social classes. Both Hegel and Marx regarded mechanical explanation as suitable to physics and Chemistry because these sciences deal with subject matters which involves no problems of historical development. Marx in particular never believed that the methods of physical sciences could be adopted for social studies. Hence mechanical explanation belongs to a lower stage of reality. This is in consonance with Marx’s claim after the publication of Darwin’s origin of species. Marx sometimes claimed that his theory of social development has an affinity with organic evolution. In this case, a superficial similarity can be observed between the class struggle and natural selections. But a distinction could be made. For dialectics was a law of logic, while Darwin’s theory was an empirical generalization- a causal theory of evolution with no implication of progress.

Karl Marx posited an economic interpretation of history, which had its most widespread influence during the last one hundred years. Owing to its materialistic and scientific nature, it was named dialectical materialism by its proponents in the Soviet Union and their affiliates elsewhere. The term (Dialectical Materialism) was never used by either Marx or Hegel, though the latter did favourably contrast both materialistic dialectics with the idealist dialectics of Hegel and also the German idealist tradition. Marx and Engel derived from the contemporary (1850) science the dialectic, or argument from thesis and antithesis to synthesis, which they borrowed from Hegel’s idealism.



It is in support of Materialism that Marx expounded his doctrine, which has a scientific outlook as a result of it’s dialectical developmental processes.

There are certain texts I encountered while writing this project, Marxist philosophy by V. G. Afanasyev. This book did not only x-ray the major facets of Marx’s philosophical doctrine, it went further to disclose some points that gave a scientific outlook to Marx’s philosophical work. Afanasyev began by discussing philosophy as one of the oldest sciences that tackle the fundamental problem of the world, like the relation of matter and consciousness to being. In this work, he discussed about the relation of matter and consciousness to being as a controversial problem that splits the philosophers into two camps, the Materialists and the Idealists. The Materialists (where Marx belongs) uphold the primacy of matter over consciousness, whereas the idealists uphold the primacy of consciousness over matter.

Another book I used in this project was Basic World Political Theories by Matthew Nwoko. This book, treated Marx mainly as a leftist reaction to Hegel. According to Nwoko, he discovered two camps, when Marx joined the young Hegelian who believed that Hegel’s doctrine of the state as the ultimate manifestation of the world’s spirit is already realized and the left Hegelians who rejected the existing situation but believed that the evolutionary process of history will be realized in future. Nwoko went further discussing Proletarian revolution as pre-requisite to true communism.

There are other texts I came across in the course of the research. They include Encyclopedia of Philosophy vol. 5, Philosophy History and Problems by S. E. Stumpf. These books seemed to discuss similar views, except that Stumpf went deeper in analyzing how Marx later decamped from Hegel’s idealism or how he became a Feuerbechian. This text discussed Hegel’s Idealism and the view of other Materialists especially Feuerbach who discovered the idea of spirit as one of the constituents of man. According to Feuerbach, religion is nothing but man’s alienation of himself.

Another book that helped me a lot was The Great Heritage on Marxism by Lenin. In this book, Lenin tended to rank Marx higher than other philosophers. He kept on revisiting Marx’s famous axiom that philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways, the point is to change it. For Lenin, the pre-Marxist philosophers and sociologists founded theories that did not gain currency beyond a narrow group of the initiated and as such their speculative systems could not keep up with reality. He saw Marx’s philosophical work as a guide to action. Lenin, as a Marxist, never viewed Marxism as an absolute value isolated from the realists of the liberation struggle of the proletariat and it,s class allies.

Finally, Marx’s work, Das Kapital was indeed of great significant. Marx not only discussed (in Das Kapital) the analysis of commodity, he also brought out how this commodity could be changed from used value to exchanged value. It is as a result of this commodity that alienation of labour comes into play, thereby giving birth to class struggle. In fact Marx stated categorically that the history of the world has been that of class struggle since the break up of primitive Communism. At this point, he enumerated the epochs of history that would come to an end with the actualization of Communism after the Proletarian revolution.



It is pertinent to know that the history of a hero is not yet complete without citing some personalities or factor that in one way or the other influenced his life. Owing to this, I deem it fit to dwell a bit on some of those men and factors that took a pivotal position in the formation of Marx’s ideas.



Although Karl Marx is certainly one of the most influential Western

philosophers, he is not without some influences. Influences which can as well be referred to as sources of Marxism. Reading through his writings and economic ideologies would give one the impression that Marx is such a wonderful thinker and a genius, but there are hitherto existing ideologies both political, economical and social which contributed much in moulding his ideas. He was immensely influenced by Hegel an Feuerbach as far as the formation of his Dialectical Materialism is concerned. Borrowing the idea of Dialectics from Hegel, Feuerbach captivated his attention. Engel’s postulation confirms this:

Marx’s achievement and political thought was based on a     transformation and synthesis of two traditions; German Idealism and exemplified in the work of Hegel and philosophical Radicalism as exemplified in the Materialism of Feuerbach.[1]


Besides Hegel and Feuerbach, Marx was also influenced by some other philosophers like Heraclitus, Democritus, Epicurus, Kant, Francis Bacon, and Machiavelli. He gathered from Bacon that knowledge could be seen from the practical perspective, and from Machiavelli he observed that the end justifies the means. Hence, their thought challenged him to adopt any strategies for the actualization of his aim. On the contrary, Kant’s ethical code channeled Marx’s thought that human beings should not be used as means to an end.

It is observed clear from the foregoing that Marx did not say much that is entirely new:

But what was original in Marx was that out of these sources he

Distilled a unified scheme of thought, which he fashioned into a Powerful instrument of special analysis and social revolution[2]


Looking at Marx’s philosophical ideas, one might term them borrowed doctrines that were synthesized. As the subsequent sections review the two predominant philosophies that influenced him (Marx .K.). The above assertion becomes obvious. Before that I wish to highlight one of the embittering factors (Alienation of Labour) that made Marx to carry on with his revolutionary philosophy.


Marx was concerned mainly with the entire set of humanistic and philosophical issues. Dominant among them was his theory of Alienation. Alienation points out that man have forfeited to someone or something what was essential to his nature. This could be found in almost all spheres of life, in economics, politics, labour and philosophy, even religion and so on. The dignity of labour was uplifted by Marx when he explained it as being noble and part of man’s essential nature. It only becomes alienation when one becomes a foreigner to the works of his hands.

It is now obvious that for Marx, the rewards of work cannot be reduced to the immediate material benefits that are derived form its completion. On the other hand, Marx sees work as the essential means by which people both express and enjoy their individual lives. In describing the joy of creative and human labour, Marx wrote,


Supposing that we had produced in a human manner, each of us would in his production have doubly affirmed himself and his Fellow men… in my expression of my life, I would have fashioned your expression of your life, and thus in my own activity have realized my own essence. In that case one products would be like so many mirrors, out of which our essence shone.[3]


The alienation condition of labour takes place when one becomes the object of his labour instead of being the subject. As a result of this “The worker is alienated from himself, from his products, and from his fellow men”.[4]


Marx buttresses the point in the poverty of philosophy that:

Labour is organized, is divided differently according to the   instruments it dispossess over. The hand mill presupposes a different division of labour from the steam mill.[5]


He equally stresses the interdependence of class antagonism with the development of the division of labour.

Industry and Commerce, production and the exchange of the necessities of life, themselves determine distribution, the structure of the different social classes and are in turn determined by it as to the mood in which they are carried on.[6]

The individual is them sub-ordinate to the independent existence, which classes acquire in the course of the development.

The issue at stake is just as much the emancipation of the particular individuals from their own class as that of the emancipation of the subordinated class from the ruling class.[7]


The individual in a alienated society is not only subject to the other class but also to his own class. This is due to the fact that economic conditions transform the mass of people to the country into workers, while the domination of capital created for the masses a common situation, and common interest. The massed then become a class as against themselves but not yet for themselves. In the course of the struggle, the masses reverse and constitute themselves as a class for themselves. The interests they defend become class interests, where as the struggle of class against class stands as a political struggle. In an attempt to emphasize more on this class interest, Marx asserted:

Every class which is struggling for mastery, even when its domination, as is the case with the Proletariat postulates the abolition of the old form of society in its entirely and of domination itself, must first conquer for itself political power in order to represent its interest in turn as the general interest.[8]


The point Marx was making is that in any given society, the strivings of some of its members run counter to that of the others, such life is full of contradictions, this is that history discloses a struggle between nations and societies. And the source of the conflicting string lies in the difference in the position and mode of life of the classes into which each society is divided. As Marx indicates:

The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebian, lord and serf, guild master and journey men in a word, oppressor and oppressed stood in constant opposition to one another.[9]



Marx’s philosophical ideology can be said to be a sort of a continuation, a deeper exploration, or rather, a more comprehensible manifestation of Hegelian philosophy. Marx himself said, “Hegelian subjectifies the predicates, the objects, but he subjectifies them in separation from their true subjectivity, the subject”.[10] Having pointed out some loopholes in Hegel’s philosophy, Marx now saw it as his duty to,

Re-identify the true subject (the acting individual, giving in the real, material world) and to trace the process of his objectification in the political institutions of the state.[11]


It is now obvious that there must be permanent elements of Hegelianism which are to be found in Marxism. In order words, that Hegel to a great extent influenced Marx’s thought. One would the fact notwithstanding that Marx made use of Hegel’s ideas in his views, he was born at the time Hegel was at the height of his influence and entered the University in 1836, when controversies on the merits of the Hegelian philosophy were still raging fiercely.

At the University of Berlin, the dominant intellectual influence was the philosophy of Hegel and accordingly Marx was for the time being deeply impressed by Hegel’s Idealism and his dynamic view of history.[12]


Thus, Marx enrolled himself as a member of the young Hegelians who was in Hegel’s approach to philosophy the key to a new understanding of humanity, the world, and history. Hegel had centered his thought around the notion of Spirit or Mind. It is not certain whether Marx ever accepted Hegel’s Idealism in all its fullness, but the point stands that he was fascinated so much by Hegel’s method of identifying God and nature or the world. Hegel had asserted that (God) is alone reality and centered his thought on spirit and nature.

Having gathered most of Hegel’s ideas, the road was cleared for putting to a positive use those acquisitions of the Hegelian philosophy, which Marx considered to be of a fundamental value. Indeed, references to Hegel in the ‘Grundrisse” and in ‘Capital’ were numerous that Lenin insisted that:

It is impossible completely to understand Marx’s Capital and especially its first chapter without having thoroughly studied and understood the whole of Hegel’s Logic. Consequently, half a century later none of the Marxists understood Marx.[13]

The focal point to grasp from Lenin’s assertion is that an adequate evaluation of Hegel’s influence on Marx is not a minor matter, it was the appearance of Ludwig Feuerbach’s writings that had a decisive effect upon the young radical Hegelians especially Marx. Feuerbach took the Hegelian view point to its extreme conclusion and criticized his very foundation of Hegelianism itself. He rejected Hegel’s Idealism, substituting it with the view that the basic reality is material. A brief analysis of Feuerbach’s influence on Marx gives more clues to this point.


Feuerbach was a student of Hegel, a German philosopher born on July 28, 1804. he once had the desire to become a protestant minister but after some disheartening and discouraging experiences, he refocused his attention on the study of philosophy. It was his association with young Hegelians that brought him into contact with Karl Marx. Of all the young Hegelians, it was Ludwig Feuerbach who exercised the greatest influence upon Marxian Socialism. The young Hegelians can be called followers of Hegel’s legacy. Two groups can be discerned from it, the Conservatives,

Who believed that Hegel’s doctrine of the State as the ultimate manifestation of the world’s spirit is already realized and should be made rational since they are actual in the present Prussian State and Church.[14]


And the Leftists who

Believed that the revolutionary process of history will be realized in the future. It is yet to become real.[15]


Feuerbach was particularly perplexed by the way the religious leaders alerted the police who mandated brutal suppression of the revolt. He was also embittered at the punishment meted out to his two brothers that master-minded the revolt. As a result of this, he decamped from Theology only to re-direct his attention to philosophy. He entered the University of Berlin where he encountered Hegel, and the latter became his lecturer. He cherished Hegel’s Dialectics and his theory of Alienation.

Nevertheless, Feuerbach later rejected Hegel’s ideas and assumed a contrary notion.

Feuerbach later rejected Hegel’s view that reality consists ultimately of ideas. As a Materialist, Feuerbach believed that only matter has reality. He attacked Orthodox religious teachings, denied Personal Immortality and held that the idea of God is merely created by the mind.[16]


Definitely, this position was taken by Karl Marx who said that religion is a sign of oppressed creature and the Opium of the people.

He decided to carry out what he called “Transformational Criticism” of Hegel’s thoughts. Thus, he turned Hegelian Theology upside down in order to attain the truth about man in his religious condition of self-alienation. Thus:

It was not Marx but Feuerbach who originally turned Hegel’s Idealism upside down. Marx was Feuerbach’s follower in this pivotal operation.[17]

Feuerbach was at the central point in the reduction of Hegel’s influence on Marx. His (Feuerbach) Sensualism and Communalism had a great influence on Karl Marx’s development of an anthropological Humanism and his contemporaries in providing cultural and moral system of reference for Humanism outside of religious orientation and rationalistic Psychology.



The relationship between Marx and Engels was such that one can say that they were everything to each other; their intellectual work cannot be discussed independent of the other. Their mutual understanding was so high, “Marx co-operated extensively with Engels such that their doctrines could hardly be discussed except as a single corpus, Marx – Engels”[18]

It was in September 1844 that Fredrick Engels became Marx’s closest friend during his stay at Paris. They both took a most active part in the revolutionary activities of various groups in Paris. They embarked on waging a vigorous struggle against the various doctrines of pretty bourgeois Socialism.

“They worked out the theory of revolutionary Proletarian Socialism or Communalism”[19]

When Marx was expelled from Paris at the insistent request of the Prussian government, he went to Brussels along with Engels. In 1847, the two friends joined a secret propaganda society called the Communist League. They took a prominent part in the league’s second congress and were requested to draw up the celebrated ‘Communist Manifesto’, which appeared in February 1848.

At the outbreak of the revolution of February 1848, Marx was banished from Belgium. He returned to Paris, fro where he traveled to Cologne, Germany. It was in Germany that he became the Editor-in-chief of ‘Nene Rhenische Zeitung’, a magazine that was indeed revolutionary in form. The revolutionary trend of that magazine resulted in his banishment from Germany, and he finally settled in London.

Marx’s life as a political exile was a very hard one for poverty weighed heavily on him and his family. It was Engels who took up the tedious task of publishing the second and third volumes of Das Kapital. The achievements of the two friends, Marx and Engels were tremendous. They were the first to show that the working class and its demands are a necessary outcome of the present economic system, which along with the bourgeoisie create and organize the Proletariat. They showed that it is the class struggle of the organized Proletariat that will deliver humanity from the evils that oppress it.

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[1] F. Engels, On Marx, Peking: Foreign Language Press, 1973, p. 1.

[2] Sarup Madan, Marxism and Education, London: Routledge and Kegan Ltd., 1978, p. 110.


[3] McLellan, Karl Marx, Selected Writings, Op. Cit. pp. 121-122.

[4] L. Straus, History of Political Philosophy, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987, p. 802.

[5] K. Marx, “The Poverty of Philosophy” in Philosophy, Ideology and Social Science, Istvan Meszaros (ed.), Bringhton Wheat Sheaf Bks , 1986, p. 122.

[6] Marx and Engels, The German Ideology, London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1965, p. 58.

[7] Istvan Meszaros, Op. Cit., p. 80.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Marx and Engels, “Manifesto of the Communist Party” in The Great Book of the Western World, vol. 50, Chicago: William Benton, 1950, p. 419.

[10] L. Easton, Writing of the Young Marx on Philosophy and Society, New York: City Press, 1967, p. 166.

[11] A. Gidden, Capitalism and Modern Social Theory, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996, p. 11.

[12] S. E. Stumpf, Philosophy: History and Problems, 5th Edition, New York: McGraw-Hill Inc., 1994, p.402.

[13] V. I. Lenin, The Great Heritage on Marx, Moscow: Novosti Press Agency Publishing House, 1987, p.50.

[14] M. Nwoko, Basic World Political Theories, Owerri: Claretian Publications, 1988, p. 175.

[15] Ibid., p. 176.

[16] W. Hosley (ed.), Merit Students Encyclopedia, Chicago: Crowell Collier Educational Corporation, 1972, p. 11.

[17] R. C. Tucker, Philosophy And Myth in Karl Marx, 2nd ed, Princeton: New Jersey, 1971, p. 86.

[18] M. I. Nwoko, Op. Cit., p. 175.

[19] V. I. Lenin, Op. Cit., p. 15.


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