A Clarification of Subjective and Objective Dialectics


I find that in many discussions and applications of dialectics the difference and connection of subjective and objective dialectics isn’t clearly defined or appreciated. This can lead to confusion about how to understand objective reality, consciousness, and what a sensible application of dialectics entails. It’s also responsible for an uninformed denigration of Marxist-Leninist dialectics in circles inclined to think of it as “dogmatic” or “rigid” or the like.

For a quick overview of the basic relationships: how matter acts (objective dialectics) becomes impressed on the brain and phenomenologically reproduced in the formation of an experience of consciousness, as well as becoming formative of unconscious activity. This consciousness is also made of material that acts dialectically. Subjective dialectics are, in one sense, this consciousness living and working towards an understanding of the world and, in another sense (if developed), the purposeful use of a dialectical method of logic. While conscious thought naturally acts in a dialectical fashion, as anything does, without the dialectical method this is not systematized and tends to fall into all sorts of confusion. When individuals interact to form social and class subjects, a qualitative change occurs, as the individuals reflect their place and struggle within the social subject rather than being primarily formative of it.

Objective Dialectics and the Brain

The term “objective dialectics” refers to the actually existing substance and movement of material. When Engels describes chemical processes as a set of quantity-quality changes based on atomic and molecular formation, what is being described is an actually existing relationship of what current science has led us to term atoms and molecules. Some would have it that this kind of reasoning is somehow a “stultifying” or “rigid” because it tries to “fix” empirical phenomena into a specified theoretical framework, yet nothing described by Engels in his Dialectics of Nature (taking historical context and personal limits into account) is really wrong or “rigid.” He describes actually existing material relationships as they were thought to exist at the time and shows that they behave in certain dialectical ways, and he quite purposefully reworks Hegelian philosophical categories into a scientific understanding of reality to do so. There is nothing rigid here, as Engels especially identified his work, and the application and development of dialectical materialism itself, as tentative and subject to revision as science brings new understandings to light. It should be noted early on here that both Marx and Engels shared the view that Hegel was for the most part wrong on pretty much everything if taken strictly at his word (they repeatedly make statements along these lines), and that it was his method that had to be salvaged and applied from a consciously materialist standpoint. This involved significant modification and re-conceptualization, and the development of this can be seen most directly and clearly in Engels’s works Anti-Dühring and Dialectics of Nature.

There should be no confusion: the material relationships are real. When water turns from liquid into ice, there is a very real material change that happens on the basis of the subtraction of energy in the form of heat. The quantitative relation of heat (quantified atomic motion) results in the change of state (a significant concrete change in quality) of a group of water molecules. Entirely apart from human cognition, liquid and solid water are still quite different things. Entirely apart from ideal dialectics of what quantity forms a certain quality or what quality means quantitatively, these relationships remain. It is the goal of dialectical materialism to elucidate the nature of these changes through conceptualizing them at multiple levels and from multiple perspectives so as to bring out the complex interrelationships that are involved.

Given that matter is in itself dialectical, how do these interactions result in the emergence of an organization of matter that results in a manner of cognition from which subjective dialectics can emerge? Though not explicitly done through the theoretical framework of dialectical materialism, in Incomplete Nature, Terrence Deacon describes how mind emerged from matter in a way that is easy to understand through dialectical materialism, as it involves objective quantity-quality relationships. He interprets qualitative jumps in physical relationships (for instance, from the world of chemistry to the world of biology, as interpreted by scientists) as a progression of supervenient levels with emergent properties determined by particular sets of constraints that occur on each of these levels. For example, this progression can occur through a process he terms “morphodynamics.” This is “dynamical organization exhibiting the tendency to become spontaneously more organized and orderly over time due to constant purturbation, but without the extrinsic imposition of influences that specifically impose that regularity.” Through this process, constraints inherent in the physics of thermodynamics arrive at, due to perturbation resulting from the tendency towards entropy, contragrade processes that perform the physical work necessary to develop new emergent properties that can reproduce themselves.

At higher levels of supervenience, a process of what Deacon terms “teleodynamics” occurs. He defines this as,

A form of dynamical organization exhibiting end-directedness and consequence-organized features that is constituted by the co-creation, complementary constraint, and reciprocal synergy of two or more strongly coupled morphodynamic processes.

A multitude of teleodynamic processes can interact within and across levels, each affecting each other’s end-directedness and possibly forming a larger supervenient teleodynamic process that he termed to be “teleogenic,” wherein self-referential loops of “causality” intertwine and form “causal” properties (with a consciously dialectical method, these would be better called processes of becoming rather than all these twists and turns of positive causality) that can form adaptations to environments and preserve its generative processes. The application of complexity theory that Deacon determines should be the mode of understanding how this process plays out may be worth studying through the lens of dialectical materialism, especially because I think that without a strict materialist method, complexity theory tends to veer off into idealism when applied to social reality. “The movement will dynamically emerge out of the complexity of human society, man, it’s just under the surface!”

Through these progressive levels of new emergent properties (all of course in dialectical relation with each other throughout these levels), eventually the extremely complex organization and dynamical properties of the brain, and the personal mind that forms from its function, is brought about. So the mind can be thought of as the result of material acting dialectically throughout a series of supervenient quantitative-qualitative changes in how material interacts with itself.

With his theory, Deacon shares with Hegel an application of a theory of negativity for understanding reality, though Deacon does this from a materialist perspective. He describes a basic incompleteness inherent in material reality emerging from basic contradictions (not a term he uses) in thermodynamics forming into emergent levels of organization with new properties. This basic negativity is popularly seen in the concept of attractors from complexity theory. He also determines the properties of the supervenient levels by the constraints imposed by themselves and externally, i.e., these are negatively determined. It is interesting to note that Istvan Mészáros in Vol. 1 of his Social Structure and Forms of Consciousness identifies a tendency to theorize phenomena as negatively determined in the core of liberalism.

Dialectical materialism, however, is a method meant to see the multi-sidedness of phenomena, incorporating positive and negative aspects into a whole that develops through the expression of the resulting contradictions. Theorizing the development of material through constraints leaves a kind of formal understanding in place and needs to be complemented with a positive aspect of becoming that forms within these constraints, making up a substance that develops positively through these negative impositions. The big bang is thought to not only have positively exploded, but also to have created its own constraints in this explosion with the fundamental forces.

What about all of this is at all “stultifying” or “rigid”? And yet all this fits rather well into the theory of dialectics that Engels developed, though some would still believe this to be somehow distinct from True Marxism because it does not reach the heights of their own no doubt highly “nuanced” interpretation of what Marx’s dialectics must have been. It is, however, known from their correspondence that Marx worked with Engels on Anti-Dühring and followed Engels’s work that would become the Dialectics of Nature when he was still alive and was supportive of the project.

I personally believe the rejection of Engels’s theory of dialectics is related to the need to denigrate Soviet science as part of the class struggle, which is a major reason for the complete demonization of Lysenko as well, who actually turned out to be ahead of his time on several issues. The relation of Lysenko’s critique of genetics to the current theory of epigenetics is especially of interest, but unfortunately I’m not aware of any tanky biologists willing to explore the subject from a generous anti-revisionist perspective, and I certainly don’t have the education to carry out such a study myself. However, it is interesting to note that transgenerational epigenetic inheritance – this can be considered the modern terminology for some of the biological relationships Lysenko was aiming to develop (though, as with anything old and scientific, he was of course wrong on many of the specifics) – is now acknowledged to be a thing, and demonization of Lysenko actually played a role in resistance to this being acknowledged. Lysenko is an interesting case of anti-communism, becoming something of a scientific mini-Stalin, which was formative of a general mythology of the USSR as a place where relentless oppression occurred that was carried out by “totalitarian” monsters on a populace that was apparently defenseless against this but could force the defeat of the Nazis. One can even see a similar myth used to attack Soviet psychology, where Vygotsky is frequently presented as having been suppressed, despite there not really being any evidence that this occurred, simply because nothing good can be thought to have come out of the USSR of that era without having to have gone through some process of oppression. All these myths arise from the same need of the bourgeoisie to create an ideological moat at the periphery of liberalism – this is of course among the many reasons that anti-communism has to be radically rejected.

So, in summary, the movement of material (understood to be dialectical) results in the formation of a personal consciousness that then interacts with the world.

Psychology and Individual Subjective Dialectics

This personal consciousness forms a subject that is acted upon. As the world impacts the subject, the subject reacts through synthesizing thought and reacting purposefully. This is a process occurring through the brain, and is therefore biologically determined. Though there may seem to be a strict differentiation between the material and the consciousness, this is all formed by concrete interactions of material and energy. When you see something, this is light bouncing off of an object into the eye, causing a signal that is then understood in the brain as to indicate a shape and color, before these signals are sent to other parts of the brain for processing into a working understanding and possible purposive action (or just ignoring the information, as is most often the case). All of these connections are immediate, so there is no solipsistic divorce between material and mind.

In some leftist circles their theory of the subject leads directly into an anti-essentialism that denies the physiological reality of what the subject acts through and their personal psychology. This is the material basis for the subject, which has specific constraints that form its structure, phenomenology, and potential for change. Anti-essentialism can lead to the sort of utopian thinking we see in today’s left, as well as the Foucauldian overemphasis on narratives and superstructure (or even the obliteration of the base-superstructure dialectic entirely) that is so popular in the post-Marxist “left.” The effects of this kind of thinking are especially obvious in the case of Foucault, whose theory led to a politics of speaking “uncomfortable truths” that he called “parrhesia” in inspiration from the Greek cynics, and particularly the (myth) of Diogenes of Sinope (a horrible misogynist and racist if his myth is true, and a sort of Zizek of antiquity). We know now better than ever how ineffective this mode of “radicalism” is within a capitalist society that excels at defanging even the most aggressive verbal attacks, becoming metabolized in the system for profit or succor as anything else does. I believe a close examination of Marx’s development of historical materialism reveals how his admiration for the science of the era, and Darwin especially, led to an acknowledgement of the limitations of the human mind that resulted in the recognition of the primacy of material factors over human consciousness.

While any effort to generally prefer biological explanations over cultural explanations for society should be rejected outright, especially because it is frequently used as a tool to justify bourgeois class oppression, the biological nature of the mind and subject should still be appreciated. For instance, all communists become aware of how fixed many people’s minds are in certain areas. In a one-on-one conversation a person can convince another of many things, but once this infringes on a certain area that has been more significantly structured by years of internalization of capitalist and imperialist narratives, rejection becomes absolute, and often this can even retroactively undo the previous persuasion. These narratives form real material structures that cannot be simply changed through a brief imposition of logic – the material structure cannot simply absorb this logic and immediately make the change, and a style of argumentation that relies on ignoring this material limitation should be critiqued.

I also want to note that anti-essentialism can itself lead to a destabilization of the subject in a way that can produce delusional thinking. The rejection of limits to thought can lead to a subjective overreaching that cannot be sustained except through delusional styles of thought. For instance, if a person who, due to their personal history, has an introverted relation to society suddenly decides to become extroverted and act in that way, these behaviors that are not yet structured in the subject can only be acted out through delusional means that ignore the deeper structuring of the brain. The neural connections and subjective associations that an extroverted person would have developed simply do not exist yet, and to move from the initial introversion would require its own developmental process.

The more basic aspects of phenomenological experience, such as emotion and sensation, over time become, though they may not ever seem to be, integrated with and by a linguistic superstructure that develops as the subject matures through experience being symbolically internalized and associations being made from and of these  symbols, and the resulting symbolic structures become more and more directed back into the more basic brain functions as a person matures. This process creates a whole, more or less integrated subjective structure that is experienced both consciously and unconsciously. This inversion of the intellectualization process (first from basic functions structuring advanced functions, then to advanced functions structuring basic functions) during maturation exhibits a type of developmental negation-of-the-negation relationship in how human brains develop with how the subject interacts with their environment. So more basic phenomenological feelings, though they are dialectically interpenetrated and form contradictions between and within each other even without the influence of language (this can be observed in animals), all become not simply interpenetrated by language, but essentially structured by language as the aforementioned dialectical inversion occurs, as this is the key symbolic method through which humans come to understand themselves and their environment, how they see themselves working within their environment.

As a result of this structuralization of experience by language, conscious logic also functions dialectically in certain ways with or without any understanding of this process by the individual. Even with those who remain stuck in metaphysical thought patterns, categorizing phenomena more or less rigidly into their boxes so that they can be played around with as mechanical parts with which to work out how the world functions, this method of thought still functions dialectically, it just imposes artificial rigidity and blocks the conceptualization of interpenetration and contradiction. This is why a consciously dialectical method of thought and logic is so important for communists.

To clarify the importance of Hegel for Marxists, at least in this respect, understanding his work is important for internalizing his systematization of logic into a fully dialectical whole, removing the antinomies that Kant recognized had plagued philosophy and which he didn’t see as resolvable. In a sense, Hegel had reached the end of a line of thinking by fully developing a dialectical logic that not only encompassed past logical systems, but created a method of logic that had set mechanisms through which it did so. Understanding such a system provides a powerful tool for communists to use when interpreting and conceptualizing the world, as it allows us to remain agile in how we think and act. While, again, Hegel was mostly wrong in his interpretation of reality itself on account of his idealism and its effects (Engels at one point describes Hegel’s work as a “dialectical poem”), understanding and applying his core logical system (the famous kernel), while keeping in mind that this is necessarily and fundamentally modified by materialism, is vital for systematizing logical thought towards being consciously dialectical.

Ideology and Social Subjectivity

Subjective dialectics external to individual subjects form the realm of the socially ideal (as conceptualized by Ilyenkov) and of ideology, both of these functioning in logical terms, as language itself is, through metaphor, syllogism, and semantics. On a personal basis, the ideal and ideology form from interactions with the environment. Ideology exists not within the subject, but within society, and cannot be divorced from society due to the social nature of humans. This is not as a sum of individuals in interaction, but rather it involves a quantitative-qualitative jump between psychology and sociology. As with the matured interaction between basic and advanced brain structures, the social ideological structures return back onto individual subjects and become the primary determinant in what people come to believe. Returning to Deacon, society is a supervenient process over individual subjects that has the property of what he would (of course, given his positivism) call “reverse causality.”

The nature of the ideal as used by Marx was clarified by Ilyenkov. Ilyenkov saw that Marx’s concept of the ideal had not only an individual, but also a social ontology. An example of this conceptualization occurs when Marx describes the value of money as an ideal property, not only meaning that it is ideal within the mind of any single person, but also that it acts through the interaction of socially subjective dialectics to form an ideal object that, as it were, imposes itself on society from without and comes from a shared ideological reflection of material constraints that develop out of material relationships of exchange. This manner of understanding ideal objects is vital for reaching past the solipsistic modes of thought that liberalism proliferates.

I’d argue that this shouldn’t even be thought of as inter-subjective, in the psychological sense, but socially subjective. As in, shared ideal objects are formative of social and class subjects. In the case of the nation, this could be related to the arguments put forth by Stalin in his work Marxism and the National Question. For instance, take Stalin’s summary of what factors are formative of a nation:

A nation is a historically constituted, stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up manifested in a common culture.

These are phenomena related to shared ideal objects within a group of people. Or, rather, people form groups and are seen as being grouped around this sort of sharing of ideal objects.

These subjective dialectics, forming the realm of ideology, are plastic and are formed through the interaction of humans and their environment in their metabolism of nature for themselves. The example of money value is informative here as a bit of an extreme case (though Marx formed many similar concepts): no one decided for money to have value, this was simply an emergent property of exchange relationships that became internalized and acted out even though this process wasn’t really understood until Marx himself. In this era of (and Marxists should be happy about this) lost illusions, examples of this nature are perhaps less common than in the past, but human societies have formed around socially ideal processes revolving around non-understood material relationships as a rule, including our own.

A goal of communism is to socialize awareness of this so as to bring humanity into a kind of conscious social subjectivity. This can’t be thought of as something that simply falls out of the sky once communism wins, but rather it is an understanding to be built socially and purposefully for internalization and further development by everyone. This might seem to a liberal as a de-individuation, but it is actually a true-individuation. Not being able to see how society determines you as an individual means you have less conscious and reflective ability to have agency over this process.

Lastly I’d just like to touch on differentiating Marxism as applied to ideological critique and Marxism as applied as a science. Ideological critique, though valuable for shifting opinions and perspectives, cannot be understood as something that gives solid ground to stand on, that offers objectivity. You can critique ideology all day, but you won’t reach any kind of truth. Ideology is made up of multivalent symbols with extremely complex interrelationships. An individual’s ideology is never constant and even changes in the topic being spoken on during the process of speech, even during the process of expressing a single word. And social ideology is no less slippery. While ideological forms and ideal objects certainly need to be critiqued, this cannot be thought of as formative of Marxism-Leninism as a science nor as essential to revolution, though Marxism-Leninism as a science should be used to help determine methods and strategies for ideological critique.

Though any science is made up of ideology, its internal logic ensures a degree of objectivity if applied correctly. As Marx expressed, being scientific means investigating and theorizing that which cannot immediately be perceived or understood – it means reaching behind appearances. Marx’s method of dialectical materialism is a powerful tool for doing this, and therefore should be understood as a scientific method (and a scientific method superior to the vulgar materialism and empiricism that is still so prevalent today). Through Marx’s application of dialectical logic, he was able to identify the material factors and conscious and unconscious social relationships that formed the way capitalism actually functioned. No easy task, as anyone who reads Capital quickly comes to understand. As Marx developed his theory, he tested it against studied phenomena to verify whether his ideas were correct and to sharpen them, spending years in libraries reading through texts on economics, surveys of economic activity, and the like. This study of objective relationships and underlying reality is of primary importance for Marxist-Leninist praxis.


Hopefully the above has clarified the nature of dialectics as they occur objectively, individually, and socially. Reaching a higher understanding of dialectical materialism is vital for communists – dialectical materialism is Marxist philosophy. And, in another direction, as Marx and Engels say in the German Ideology, “for the practical materialist, i.e., the communist, it is a question of revolutionizing the existing world, of practically coming to grips with and changing the things found in existence.” In other words, to be a communist is to be a practical materialist and to be a practical materialist is to be a communist.


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