Marxist dialectics as a instrument of self-delusion
If you were ever wondering how it was even possible that well-educated people in Eastern Bloc countries for over a half century denied the basic facts about the reality that surrounded them and marched towards a predictable failure, the answer is Marxist #dialectics. It was an intellectual instrument designed specifically for that purpose.
As a philosophy “dialectics” has many definitions, some of which describe useful or at least interesting techniques of confronting arguments. In #Marxism however dialectics was used predominantly as a tool for blocking basic reality checks and logical constraints that every human being develops in order to survive in life. Dialectics allowed die-hard Marxists to believe they're just a few steps from communist utopia when everything around witnessed to the opposite, gave a helping hand in breaking all promises they made previously to themselves, and justified radical course changes down to its complete reversal.
At the base of the technique lie “laws of dialectics” invented by Marx and Engels and claimed to be fundamental laws of nature, remaining beyond even laws of physics. Some of the laws (words capitalised to indicate highest respect) include:
- The Law of Transformation of Quantity into Quality
- Everything is Unity of Opposites
- Everything Changes
If these don't sound extremely innovative to you, that's because they aren't. Leszek Kołakowski in “Main currents of Marxism” rather brutally described these as a mix of “tautologies, banal and nonsense”. As used by Hegel to describe high-level evolution of abstract ideas, these certainly could make some sense. When applied by Marx and Engels to describe the physical world, they were effectively just another pseudo-scientific mysticism, not any different from mesmerism or homeopathy.
Just like homeopathy draws people with serious conditions away from actual life-saving therapies, Marxian dialectics had drawn its believers away from life-saving reality checks, sending them into a deadly spiral of delusion.
Ignore today, see into future
What was equivalent to denial of the surrounding reality, dialectical thinkers believed that the reality is not what you see around you, but what will be surrounding you in future, assuming of course the utopia materializes. The latter however was never doubted due to another set of “iron laws” called historical materialism.
Polish logician and philosopher Józef Maria Bocheński explained this thinking with the following example:
When you say: this is an old, badly painted wall, you judge it metaphysically, extract the instant state. When you say: this is a nice, shiny and new wall, you're of course wrong from current perspective, because the wall isn't like that at all. But from dialectical point of view you are right, because it will be made such tomorrow.
And then he moves to a more specific case of Soviet reality:
If you said Soviet people live in old houses infested with pest, you would be lying, even though this is usually the case. If you however say Soviet people live in new, shiny houses you're telling the truth, even though in reality very few actually live in such conditions. To see today what will be tomorrow – it's to see dialectically. Communists in the first place admit any lies are moral as long as it serves the Party, and secondly, they tend to see things “dialectically”, or to claim they are today what per their doctrine they become only in future.
This technique effectively prevents any learning process – if you always see things as they would be if your theory was right, any corrections in the course are obsolete.
Twisting words for the win
Philosopher Alexander Zinoviev introduces a much more popular use of the “dialectic technique” in Homo Sovieticus:
Do not even try to understand. There are things that by their nature cannot be understood. Just wait. And from many of such cases you will learn the habit of taking this specific position about current events. And you will be never wrong. The wonder method is called: Dialectics. Dialectics is a method of walking blind, in unknown empty space filled with imaginary obstacles, moving without a place to stand, without resistance, without aim.
What Zinoviev describes here is a habit fundamental for survival in Soviet society: don't ask, don't question, don't think and don't logically analyse. Simply accept what is said, including sudden changes of meaning of words and policy.
You don't have a political majority support? No problem (Kołakowski, “Main currents of Marxism”):
Because communists never had majority behind them, they claimed the majority they have is a deeper, dialectical concept: the latter can never be falsified as it's deduced from theory that claims that communism by its very nature represents the interests of humanity.
Want to prosecute a political opponent who hasn't broken the law? No problem (Tony Judt, “Past Imperfect: French Intellectuals, 1944–1956”):
The desire to grant all possible privilege to Stalin was based on complex, abstract arguments – the “dialectical thinking”. If Kostov pleaded guilty, then he was guilty. If he pleaded not guilty (which he obviously tried), then it proved the trial was fair and he was guilty anyway. In the same way, rationing of food in France was a “restriction”, but in [communist] Poland it was “widely accepted practice”.
Revolutionary dialectics uses the same trick as Scientology language – it tends to use terms that have well-established meaning, but redefines them in its own unique way.
At the end of this spectrum, dialectics has been used simply as a technique to obscure double standards and simple lies, yet another technique of propaganda and manipulation of ideas.
Arthur Koestler in “Scum of the Earth” describes his 1939 shock of learning that USSR, who so far presented itself as the main world's anti-fascist force, has just signed a pact with the Third Reich:
Next morning, August 24th, the news had spread from the third to the front page. We were spared none of the details. We read about von Ribbentrop’s lightning visit to Moscow and about his cordial reception—and I remembered what fun our Party papers had made of the ex-commercial traveller in champagne who had been promoted chief diplomatic salesman of Genuine Old Red Scare, bottled in Château Berchtesgaden. We learned all the picturesque details of how the swastika had been hoisted over the Moscow aerodrome and how the band of the revolutionary Army had played the Horst Wessel song—and I remembered the whispered explanations of the Party officials after the execution of Tukhachevsky and the other Red Army leaders. The official explanation (Version A, for the pious and simple-minded) stated that they were ordinary traitors; Version B (for the intelligentsia and for inside use) informed us that, although not exactly traitors, they had advocated a policy of understanding with the Nazis against the Western Democracies; so, of course, Stalin was right to shoot them. We learned of the monstrous paragraph 3 of the new treaty,1 a direct encouragement to Germany to attack Poland—and I wondered how this time the Party was to explain this latest achievement of Socialist statesmanship to the innocent masses.
Apparent contradictions, change of course? If you were a Soviet citizen, Zinovievs recipe applies – don't question, just accept. Koestler however was an European communist, and they demanded a more convincing argument. Dialectics to the rescue:
Next morning we knew it: Humanité, official organ of the French Communist Party, explained to us that the new treaty was a supreme effort of Stalin to prevent the threatening imperialist war. Oh, they had an explanation ready for every occasion, from the extension of capital punishment to the twelve-year-old to the abolition of the Soviet workers’ right to strike and to the one-party-election-system; they called it ‘revolutionary dialectics’ and reminded one of those conjurers on the stage who can produce an egg from every pocket of their frockcoats and even out of the harmless onlooker’s nose. They explained everything so well that, during a committee meeting, old Heinrich Mann, at one time a great ‘sympathiser,’ shouted to Dahlem, leader of the German Communists: ‘If you go on asking me to realise that this table here is a fishpond, then I am afraid my dialectical capacities are at an end.’
But Soviet leadership had a good teacher in dialectics. On 15 August 1857 no one else than Karl Marx himself chuckled in a letter to Engels about how he outwitted any possible criticism of this political analysis:
As to the Delhi affair, it seems to me that the English ought to begin their retreat as soon as the rainy season has set in in real earnest. Being obliged for the present to hold the fort for you as the Tribune’s military correspondent I have taken it upon myself to put this forward. NB, on the supposition that the reports to date have been true. It’s possible that I shall make an ass of myself. But in that case one can always get out of it with a little dialectic. I have, of course, so worded my proposition as to be right either way.