Dusk Somewhere

Concise definitions of dialectical & historical materialsm

Posted at — Mar 1, 2024 by Izzy Meckler

Dialectical materialism is the philosophical foundation of Marxism, and historical materialism is its scientific foundation. Both concepts are thus very important for communists1 to understand. Their claims are relatively uncontroversial in isolation, but they have radical implications.

Dialectical materialism

Let’s start with dialectical materialism. Dialectical materialism consists of the following claims about reality and how we should talk about it:

  1. Realism
  2. Time-dependence
  3. Materialism
  4. Temporariness

Let’s define each of these in turn.


Realism is simply the claim that there is a reality which exists independently of any of our perceptions of it. It is a common sense position that most people adopt as a matter of course.


Time-dependence is a claim about how we should think and use language. It says that we should think about processes rather than things. Take the phone or computer that you are reading this on. Time-dependence says that rather than thinking of that device as an object with an eternal existence and identity, you should think of it as merely the current state of a process which is evolving over time. A moment ago something else was on the screen, a few hours ago that smudge on the screen wasn’t there, a few weeks ago that scratch wasn’t there, a few years ago it was just some minerals and energy spread over the planet that was subsequently brought together by people. In a few years it may be part of a compacted cube of trash.

Moreover, when conceiving of or speaking of a thing, it should come bundled with a model of how that thing evolves over time. There is no such thing as a phone: there are models of systems with certain states and a description of how those states change over time, that we can imagine mapping onto the configuration of physical particles in your hand which we usually call “a phone.”

That model may be more or less detailed as required by the application. If you only need to talk about the behavior of software on the phone, your model can ignore information like the scratches on the screen, the degradation of the materials making up the phone, etc., though that limits the applicability of the model.

If you need to talk about the sustainability of producing phones, your model would want to include information about how quickly phones get used up, how much of each mineral they use relative to the rate at which those minerals are generated, etc.


Materialism consists of the claims that

  1. All phenomena in reality evolve over time according to definite laws which are at least partially knowable and describable via some version of scientific investigation,
  2. All processes (as in the previous section) that we describe must come equipped with an embedding into physical reality. I.e., we are obliged to consider how the states of a process are actually represented in the physical universe.

Claim 1 usually extends to the claim that the picture presented by modern physics, of a reality built out of particles and energy, evolving over time by laws which can be precisely stated mathematically, is more or less correct.

Claim 2 is important because every single thing has properties which follow from its existence as a physical entity. Human beings for example, are physical. The specifics of the physical nature of human beings implies that we must keep our body temperature within specific bounds to avoid dying, obtain energy by eating (i.e., consuming molecules of certain kinds from external sources), etc.

The physical embedding of a process strongly constrains the possibilities for how it may evolve over time, if it is to remain coherent for any appreciable length of time.

The fact that processes are physically embedded also leads us to consider their environment. Due to the physical embedding, the process is exposed to interactions with what is happening in the part of the universe external to it.


The claim of temporariness is that any process model one associates to a real physical phenomenon is doomed to break down over time. This is true for trivial reasons due to the second law of thermodynamics, so we are usually interested in findings more proximate causes of mismatch between a model and the reality it seeks to explain. Such mismatches are called contradictions by Marxists. Dialectical materialism therefore indicates that we should try to understand the specific causes of breakdown in any given model of a physical phenomenon. This is where the edges of our knowledge are, as well as indications of what that phenomenon may transform into in the future.

The mismatches come from gaps between the complexity of the model and the full complexity of the physical phenomenon and its embedding in an environment.

This is the claim of dialectical materialism most often associated with the phrase “dialectics.”

Historical materialism

Historical materialism is simply the application of the claims of dialectical materialism to human society. Let’s see how this works:


To sum up, dialectical materialism is the set of the following claims:

  1. Realism: there is a world out there existing independently of us.
  2. Time-dependence: we should think of phenomena as processes evolving via some logic over time, rather than as static things.
  3. Materialism: every process has a physical embedding which constrains and influences its evolution.
  4. Temporariness: no process persists forever.

And historical materialism is merely the application of these claims to the phenomenon of human society, along with an elaboration of their implications.

  1. In the sense of people aiming to be part of the movement toward communism, a classless society. ↩︎