The ABC of Materialist Dialectics

Leon Trotsky

The ABC of
Materialist Dialectics

(December 1939)

Extract from A Petty-Bourgeois Opposition in the Socialist Workers Party.

Dialectic is neither fiction nor mysticism, but a science of the forms of our thinking insofar as it is not limited to the daily problems of life but attempts to arrive at an understanding of more complicated and drawn-out processes. The dialectic and formal logic bear a relationship similar to that between higher and lower mathematics.

I will here attempt to sketch the substance of the problem in a very concrete form. The Aristotelian logic of the simple syllogism starts from the proposition that ‘A’ is equal to ‘A’. This postulate is accepted as an axiom for a multitude of practical human actions and elementary generalisations. But in reality ‘A’ is not equal to ‘A’. This is easy to prove if we observe these two letters under a lens—they are quite different from each other. But, one can object, the question is not of the size or the form of the letters, since they are only symbols for equal quantities, for instance, a pound of sugar. The objection is beside the point; in reality a pound of sugar is never equal to a pound of sugar—a more delicate scale always discloses a difference. Again one can object: but a pound of sugar is equal to itself. Neither is this true—all bodies change uninterruptedly in size, weight, colour, etc. They are never equal to themselves. A sophist will respond that a pound of sugar is equal to itself “at any given moment”.

Aside from the extremely dubious practical value of this “axiom”, it does not withstand theoretical criticism either. How should we really conceive the word “moment”? If it is an infinitesimal interval of time, then a pound of sugar is subjected during the course of that “moment” to inevitable changes. Or is the “moment” a purely mathematical abstraction, that is, a zero of time? But everything exists in time; and existence itself is an uninterrupted process of transformation; time is consequently a fundamental element of existence. Thus the axiom ‘A’ is equal to ‘A’ signifies that a thing is equal to itself if it does not change, that is, if it does not exist.

At first glance it could seem that these “subtleties” are useless. In reality they are of decisive significance. The axiom ‘A’ is equal to ‘A’ appears on one hand to be the point of departure for all our knowledge, on the other hand the point of departure for all the errors in our knowledge. To make use of the axiom of ‘A’ is equal to ‘A’ with impunity is possible only within certain limits. When quantitative changes in ‘A’ are negligible for the task at hand then we can presume that ‘A’ is equal to ‘A’. This is, for example, the manner in which a buyer and a seller consider a pound of sugar. We consider the temperature of the sun likewise. Until recently we consider the buying power of the dollar in the same way. But quantitative changes beyond certain limits become converted into qualitative. A pound of sugar subjected to the action of water or kerosene ceases to be a pound of sugar. A dollar in the embrace of a president ceases to be a dollar. To determine at the right moment the critical point where quantity changes into quality is one of the most important and difficult tasks in all the spheres of knowledge including sociology.

Every worker knows that it is impossible to make two completely equal objects. In the elaboration of baring-brass into cone bearings, a certain deviation is allowed for the cones which should not, however, go beyond certain limits (this is called tolerance). By observing the norms of tolerance, the cones are considered as being equal. (‘A’ is equal to ‘A’). When the tolerance is exceeded the quantity goes over into quality; in other words, the cone bearings become inferior or completely worthless.

Our scientific thinking is only a part of our general practice including techniques. For concepts there also exits “tolerance” which is established not by formal logic issuing from the axiom ‘A’ is equal to ‘A’, but by the dialectical logic issuing from the axiom that everything is always changing. “Common sense” is characterized by the fact that it systematically exceeds dialectical “tolerance”.

Vulgar thought operates with such concepts as capitalism, morals, freedom, workers’ state, etc as fixed abstractions, presuming that capitalism is equal to capitalism. Morals are equal to morals, etc. Dialectical thinking analyses all things and phenomena in their continuous change, while determining in the material conditions of those changes that critical limit beyond which ‘A’ ceases to be ‘A’, a workers’ state ceases to be a workers’ state.

The fundamental flaw of vulgar thought lies in the fact that it wishes to content itself with motionless imprints of a reality which consists of eternal motion. Dialectical thinking gives to concepts, by means of closer approximations, corrections, concretisation, a richness of content and flexibility; I would even say “a succulence” which to a certain extent brings them closer to living phenomena. Not capitalism in general, but a given capitalism at a given stage of development. Not a workers’ state in general, but a given workers’ state in a backward country in an imperialist encirclement, etc.

Dialectical thinking is related to vulgar in the same way that a motion picture is related to a still photograph. The motion picture does not outlaw the still photograph but combines a series of them according to the laws of motion. Dialectics does not deny the syllogism, but teaches us to combine syllogisms in such a way as to bring our understanding closer to the eternally changing reality. Hegel in his Logic established a series of laws: change of quantity into quality, development through contradictions, conflict of content and form, interruption of continuity, change of possibility into inevitability, etc., which are just as important for theoretical thought as is the simple syllogism for more elementary tasks.

Hegel wrote before Darwin and before Marx. Thanks to the powerful impulse given to thought by the French Revolution, Hegel anticipated the general movement of science. But because it was only an anticipation, although by a genius, it received from Hegel an idealistic character. Hegel operated with ideological shadows as the ultimate reality. Marx demonstrated that the movement of these ideological shadows reflected nothing but the movement of material bodies.

We call our dialectic materialist, since its roots are neither in heaven nor in the depths of our “free will”, but in objective reality, in nature. Consciousness grew out of the unconscious, psychology out of physiology, the organic world out of the inorganic, the solar system out of the nebulae. On all the rungs of this ladder of development, the quantitative changes were transformed into qualitative. Our thought, including dialectical thought, is only one of the forms of the expression of changing matter. There is place within this system for neither God nor Devil, nor immortal soul, nor eternal norms of laws and morals. The dialectic of thinking, having grown out of the dialectic of nature, possess consequently a thoroughly materialist character.

Darwinism, which explained the evolution of species through quantitative transformations passing into qualitative, was the highest triumph of the dialectic in the whole field of organic matter. Another great triumph was the discovery of the table of atomic weights of chemical elements and further the transformation of one element into another.

With these transformations (species, elements, etc.) is closely linked the question of classification, equally important in the natural as in the social sciences. Linnaeus’ system (18th century), utilising as its starting point the immutability of species, was limited to the description and classification of plants according to their external characteristics. The infantile period of botany is analogous to the infantile period of logic, since the forms of our thought develop like everything that lives. Only decisive repudiation of the idea of fixed species, only the study of the history of the evolution of plants and their anatomy prepared the basis for a really scientific classification.

Marx, who in distinction from Darwin was a conscious dialectician, discovered a basis for the scientific classification of human societies in the development of their productive forces and the structure of the relations of ownership which constitute the anatomy of society. Marxism substituted for the vulgar descriptive classification of societies and states, which even up to now still flourishes in the universities, a materialistic dialectical classification. Only through using the method of Marx is it possible correctly to determine both the concept of a workers’ state and the moment of its downfall.

All this, as we see, contains nothing “metaphysical” or “scholastic”, as conceited ignorance affirms. Dialectic logic expresses the laws of motion in contemporary scientific thought. The struggle against materialist dialectics on the contrary expresses a distant past, conservatism of the petit-bourgeoisie, the self-conceit of university routinists and … a spark of hope for an after-life.


[From A Petit-bourgeois Opposition in the Socialist Workers Party, by Leon Trotsky, December 15, 1939.]

Guns and God

Now this is something I find very interesting so I’m going to challenge you, I hope, with my understanding of the matter of Guns and God. For most people who believe in God, you’ll find that guns and God go hand in hand. This seems to go along with people in the Bible Belt particularly and most, not all, of everyone else in the United States who is called or refers to themselves as “Christian”. A Christian being one who attempts to live their life as Jesus. In any case, would Jesus be one to defend himself with a gun? I don’t think so for a number of reasons, since the story goes he “allowed” himself to be crucified “unjustly” and did not strike all the Roman’s and high priests of Judaism who convicted him with lightning bolts, nor did he simply create an AR-15 Assault rifle out of thin air and start wasting all his attackers left and right.

There are more references to how Christianity would not promote self defense in any form whatsoever. Luke 6:29 says “If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them”.

Matthew 5:39 says “But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.”

So essentially the Christian thing to do in any situation where violence is perpetrated against yourself is to allow it to happen. This is backed by Jesus’ own actions as well as “Gods word”. If you were getting raped and murdered even, the clear cut thing to do according to Christian theology is to let it happen, and maybe pray for your attacker or something good natured of that sort.

Matthew 6:20 after all says to “build your treasures in heaven”, and defending your life on earth wouldn’t seem to be conducive to that. 1Peter 5:10 says “And after you have suffered a little while, the God off all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.” 1John 2:15-17 says “do not love the world, nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God abides forever.”

So it would seem with all these biblical references to not love the world, follow the life of Jesus, turn your cheek, take on suffering, build your treasures in heaven, and not take vengeance or self defense because “your time on this earth is short, compared to eternity in heaven”… and the only goal of life is to follow Jesus’ commands and words to do just that.

Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird” stated in court that “I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand”. Which, as a Christian that would take some serious courage to not defend yourself but apparently that is exactly what you’re supposed to do. I would expect the non Christian would be more apt to utilize guns according to everything I have ever learned in my 20 years of studying Christian theology, yet the majority of Christians in the Untied States don’t bother with it. They ignore it, or are ignorant of the matter altogether. Perhaps they don’t have the courage to go without a gun, or the courage to not defend themselves, or the courage to turn their cheek. Perhaps they really value their life on this world more than their religion and God tells them they should. Perhaps they don’t really want to do what God says, they want to make their religion out to be what they want it to be, and somehow somewhere a majority of them turn Christianity into a religion that promotes gun use and self defense. How, I will never see it, because the Bible really teaches just the opposite. I didn’t understand the majority of Christians when I was a Christian but I do seem to understand it better as an agnostic atheist. I suspect even bringing it up to some Christians, about this Guns and God issue that I just brought up might bring on some form of cognitive dissonance and get angry at me, or whatever, but that’s not my intention. I guess in bringing it up my intention is to cause people to think… as well as to ask you what you think on the matter. That goes for every Christian who promotes guns and self defense.