Practice Question:  Analyse Marxian conception of historical materialism as a critique of Hegelian dialectics. (20 Marks) (UPSC 2017)

Approach: Introduction; Define both Hegelian dialectics and historical materialism, bring out the difference between the two, Draw out application of the concept; Conclusion.



The word ‘dialectics’ refers to a method of intellectual discussion by dialogue. It is a term of logic. According to the Greek philosopher Aristotle , it referred to the art of deputation by question and answer. Before Aristotle, another Greek philosopher Plato (427-397 B.C.) developed this term in relation with his doctrine of ideas. He evolved it as the art of analysing ideas in themselves and in relation to the idea of ultimate good. Even before Plato, yet another Greek philosopher Socrates (470-390 B.C.) used this term to examine the presuppositions at the back of all sciences.

There is one more strand in the meaning of the term dialectics. It is the idea of dialectics as a process. This means the dialectics is a process of reason in ascending and descending forms. In ascending form of dialectics, one is able to demonstrate the existence of a higher reality, e.g., the forms of God. In order to understand how Karl Marx made use of the term ‘dialectics’, we need to remember that Marx evolved his concept of dialectical materialism on the basis of his critique of the German philosopher Hegel’s theories of idealism.



Hegel proposed that dialectics can be conceived more narrowly as grasping of opposites in their unity. Hegel saw it as a process which brings out what is implicit. In this way, each development is a product of a previous less developed phase. In a way new development is a fulfilment of the previous state. Thus there is always a hidden tension between a form and its process of becoming a new form. Hegel interpreted history as progress in the consciousness of freedom.

Marx was initially influenced by Hegel’s philosophy but later on he criticised it due to its idealist nature and propounded his own dialectical materialism. Marx criticised Hegel for deducing the laws of dialectics from consciousness instead of material existence. On this point Marx said that to get a scientifically sound dialectical method one will have to totally invert the logic of Hegelian dialectics. This is what Marx did in his dialectical materialism, where in contradistinction to Hegel, he said it is the matter which is supreme and determinant of consciousness and idea and not vice-versa.



Dialectical materialism evolved by Marx is diametrically opposite to Hegelian dialectics. It seeks to explain everything in terms of contradictions of matter. Dialectical materialism provides abstract laws for natural and social change. Contrary to metaphysics, it believes that in Nature, things are interconnected, interrelated and determined by each other. It considers Nature as an integral whole. Dialectical materialism declares that the law of reality is the law of change. There is constant transformation in inorganic nature and human world. There is nothing eternally static.

The Law of the Unity and Conflict of Opposites

It states that there are internal sides, tendencies, forces of an object or phenomena, which are mutually exclusive but at the same time presuppose each other. The inseparable interconnections of these opposite tendencies  or contradictions is responsible for the unity of opposites. This contradictoriness of objects and phenomena of the world is of a general,
universal nature. There is no object or phenomenon in the world which could not be divided into opposites.

The Law of Negation of the Negation

“In no sphere can one undergo a development without negating one’s previous mode of existence.” For example, after throwing off the colonial yoke, in India we started building a new nation. In this process, we tried to do away with all the vestiges of oppression and the institutions that blocked national development. However, we did retain the educational, legal an bureaucratic structures along with the modern infrastructure of transportation and telecommunication. Due to these reasons, the succession of developmental stages is progressive.
Although no stage is ever completely repeated, some features of earlier stages necessarily recur, although in a different form, at later stages. In this way, the old is destroyed and the new arises.

The Law of Transition of Quantity into Quality

In nature, everything is in a state of continuous movement and change. Certain things are arising or coming into existence whereas certain things are developing, and/or decaying and certain things are dying or going out of existence at a given time. This means a state of continuous flux. According to this law, process of change is not simple or gradual but it is a product of quantitative advances which result in abstract qualitative changes at a particular moment when mature conditions are present. There is never repetition occurrences. This change is always from lower to higher, simpler to complex, homogeneous to heterogeneous levels of reality.



The principles or laws of dialectical materialism hold good for nature, world and society alike. When these laws are applied to the history of society they take the shape of historical materialism.

Primitive-Communal Form of Society

Even in primitive society the productive forces developed steadily. The tools were improved and skills were gradually accumulated. The most significant development was the transition to metal tools. With the growth of productivity the communal structure of society started breaking into families. Private property arose and the family started becoming the owner of the means of production. Here the contradiction between the communal relations of production and the potential forms of exploiting classes led to the qualitative change i.e. transition into ancient mode of production.

Slave-Owning Society

In this society, there existed the contradictions between slave-owners and slaves. When the mature conditions were reached the struggle of these contradictions led to the qualitative change i.e. the negation of slave-owning society by way of its transition into feudal society. The conflict of the opposites i.e. the slave-owners and slave culminated into violent slave
revolts ultimately effecting the negation. We can say that the feudal system stands as an example of negation of negation. It means that feudal society can be seen as an example of negation of slave-owning society which itself is a negation of primitive-communal society.

Feudal Society

The feudal lords oppressed and exploited their serfs. However, towns began to emerge at this time. Trade, commerce and manufacture began to flourish. Many serfs ran away from the feudal estates to pursue a trade in the growing towns. The conflict of opposites within the feudal system namely, that of landless serfs against feudal lords, reached
its maturity. The feudal system declined and its negation was the capitalist system.

Capitalist Society

Based on private capitalist ownership the capitalist relations of production facilitated tremendous growth of the productive forces. With this growth of productive forces, capitalist relations of production ceased to correspond to forces of production in feudal system. The most significant contradiction of the capitalist mode of production is the contradiction between the social character of production and the private capitalist form of appropriation. Production in capitalist society bears a strikingly pronounced social character.

The new communist socio-economic formation, passes in its development through two phases, socialism and communism. Socialism does away with private ownership of the means of production. It establishes public ownership of means of production. In such a society the proletariat will jointly own means of production and distribute the produce according to the needs of people. This is the stage of dictatorship of proletariat, which will later on also, do away with the state apparatus leading to a stateless society.



Marx’s concept of socialist revolution presupposes an era of shift from capitalism to socialism. He explained bourgeois revolution as a defeat of the aristocracy. This defeat came at the end of a long period of growth of capitalism. The overthrow of the bourgeoisie is, on the other hand, only the first phase of the revolutionary change from capitalism to socialism.
According to Marx the socialistic phase of revolution would not be without classes, occupational division of labour and market economy etc. It is only in the higher phase of revolution there would be distribution of goods to each according to his needs. This would be the phase of communism. Thus, change to communism was perceived by Marx as a series of steps to completely revolutionise the entire mode of production.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Contact Us
close slider