Dialectics in society as understood by Marxism
Marxism developed out of three roots: German dialectical philosophy, Karl Marx’s analysis of French politics and class struggles during the 19th century, and his analysis of the then capitalist economic system in England.
The branch of Marxism that applies the dialectical principles in history and sociology is called historical dialectics (historical materialism). It is made of the following concepts:
- People are divided into classes by their relations to the means of production – land and capital. The class that controls the means of production expectedly exploits, with surplus value (i.e. profit created by the unpaid labour of workers), the other classes in society.
- It is this conflict of opposites in the society, i.e. the class struggle between the rich (capitalist and landowning classes) and the poor (proletariat and peasantry), which creates all the dynamic of history, i.e. all historical growth, change and development, which tends to drive the society towards a final uniformity. In fact, it is the same universal law of dialectical development, manifested in social level.
- Since human beings create the forms of social life solely in response to economic needs, the social, political and intellectual life of society (superstructure) reflect only the economic structure (infrastructure).
- History inevitably follows certain deterministic laws which are so powerful that individuals have little or no influence on its development.
Historical dialectics and the Quran
Interestingly, some of the concepts of historical dialectics, including ‘class struggle’, appear to resonate with the Quran. Take these famous verses, for example:
Say: O God, Owner of all dominion/ ownership! You grant dominion/ ownership unto whom You will and take away dominion/ ownership from whom You will; and You exalt whom You will and humble whom You will. In Your hand is all the good. Indeed, You are the Possessor of power over all things.
You merge the night into the day and merge the day into the night; and You bring forth the living from the dead and You bring forth the dead from the living; and You give sustenance to whom You will without reckoning. 3:26-27
The above starts with a reminder that the real Owner of all ownership, and the ultimate Possessor of all power and resources and means, is none but God alone (‘O God, Owner of all dominion/ ownership! …’).
Then we are told that it is the divine directive that has made the process of political empowerment and acquiring economic ownership by an individual, group or nation follow certain natural laws (‘You grant dominion/ownership unto whom You will and take away dominion/ownership from whom You will …’). Obviously, as God has appointed ‘a due measure’ or unchangeable law for everything in the Universe, including the society (17:30, 30:37, 39:52), and as His Rule is therefore the Rule of law, here as well as many other places in the Quran, ‘divine will’ infact means ‘divine laws’ (or what we humanly perceive as ‘natural laws’), and should not be misconceived in mortal terms as the erratic whim of a muddle-headed despot. These laws are dialectical and deterministic as we will observe below.
Now, while the first verse illustrates dialectics in political dominion and economic ownership (‘You grant dominion/ownership unto whom You will and …’) and then dialectics in social class and status (‘and You exalt whom You will and …’), its following verse goes on depicting dialectics in physical nature (‘You merge the night into the day and …’) and also dialectics in living world (‘You bring forth the living from the dead and …’).
Please note how this dynamic duality in socio-politico-economics is mentioned here within the greater context of universal dialectics, which involves perpetual coiling of the opposites through ‘negation of the negation’ (e.g. ‘night and day’ and ‘living and dead’). And note how this indicates that ‘class struggle’, i.e. the interaction between the rich and the poor, also generates a similar ‘thesis-antithesis cycle’ leading to dialectical development, as conceived by historical dialecticians.
In other words, the mutual interpenetration of dominion/ ownership/ class into its opposite creates a dialectical cycle through ‘union and conflict of opposites’, like nature’s other similar dialectical cycles, such as night and day and living and dead.
This universality of dialectics is idiosyncratically expressed here in terms of dualities, by recurrent mention of ‘pairs of opposites’ (grant … and take away …, exalt … and humble …, night and day, living and dead, etc). This further implies that everything in the Universe, from galaxies to living organisms to socio-economics to human thoughts, is interactive and in constant flux that results from the struggle between two disputing forces – thesis and antithesis – the opposition being resolved by their synthesis (cf. 13:3, 35:11, 36:36, 39:6, 42:1-12, 43:12, 51:49, 53:45, 75:39, 78:8).
Finally, this description of various ‘dialectical cycles’ comes to an end with a rebound of the initial ‘socio-politico-economic’ topic, with a reassurance about the possible bestowal of God’s unlimited provisions to man (‘and You give sustenance to whom You will without reckoning’), something the Quran is very positive about (65:3, 17:20). This reminds us of the tremendous potential for humanity’s growing prosperity as an outcome of the increased amount and fairer distribution of resources through the dialectical development of society, as predicted by historical dialecticians.
It is interesting to compare the above passage on discussion, 3:26-27, with its related passages like 42:1-12 and 53:42-48, where social dialectics is similarly mentioned within the greater context of universal dialectics.
Some Marxists who consider ‘revolution’ as a necessary step towards social justice may find a bit of resonance in 22:60-61, which sanction a proportionate response, when it becomes essential in order to remedy great injustice and oppression (cf. 2:191, 2:217, 4:75). Interestingly here, once again, the Quran expounds the struggle between the darkness of oppression and the light of freedom in terms of the dialectical cycle of night and day:
Thus shall it be. And whoever responds to aggression only in proportion to what he is afflicted, and then is further transgressed, God will certainly aid him. For God is Pardoning, Forgiving.
That is because God merges night into day, and merges day into night, and that God is Hearer, Seer. 22:60-61
According to the Quran, the same deterministic principles, which govern the physical Universe, also govern the society, including all its provisions and conditions (39:52, 30:37, 13:26, 17:30, 65:3; cf.15:21, 25:2, 41:10). This clearly conforms with the Marxist tenet that history inevitably follows certain very powerful deterministic laws.