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The Dialectic of Social Change

Prepared by the Leningrad Institute of Philosophy under the Direction of
M. Shirokov 1941

It is not only in physical and biological phenomena that dialectical development takes place. It is the driving force behind human evolution and social development.

Man is partly determined by his environment. But his relation to his environment is not a static one. In the first place the environment itself is as much the creation of man as man is the creation of the environment. Interaction is continuous. The changes wrought by man react on man himself and then man proceeds to yet further changes. Man fells forests and practices a crude husbandry, as a consequence soil erosion sets in and man launches vast irrigation projects like the Tennessee Valley experiment, which in turn change the social habit and industrial structure of a whole area, introducing electrification, scientific agriculture, new industries and a new level of social development. But this awakens the fierce antagonism of vested interests outside the Tennessee Valley so that the relation of the district to its environment, politically, brings into existence new internal movements and institutions. It is such mutual influences arid corresponding adjustments which lead, not only to gradual change, but, after a cumulative process of parallel modification, to a revolution.

The process of soil erosion is gradual and homogeneous. However far it is prolonged it does not of itself become a series of dams and irrigation canals ; but when the social pressure due to erosion and its consequences reaches a certain degree of intensity the social organism produces a mutation and grapples with the environment in a new way. It is human intervention in the manner rendered necessary by the actual conditions that revolutionizes the situation. But it is also worth noting that a failure to interrupt the gradual process of erosion itself leads to abrupt and violent changes, to disastrous floods, to famines, and to social collapse.

To take another example. The pressure of the law of supply and demand on the price of labour power causes the workers to form trade unions, restrict the supply of labour, and get a better price for it, a better wage. The employers policy thus produces an opposite tendency. But the trade union eventually finds that competitive industry cannot afford to pay a living wage, whereupon it has to fulfill a new role or perish. It must struggle for power, to supersede the employing class, and in so doing pass beyond the two­ class economic system in which one section owns the tools and the other sells-its labour power. The continuance of the old struggle is rendered impossible by the accumulation of parallel or converging changes resulting from the inter­ relatedness of economic factors and social movements. It is not a pendulum movement, or simple action and reac­tion, but a condition of deadlock, of crisis, to which these converging changes have inevitably led. The impasse shows itself in a choking of the forces of production, a paralysis, leading to fierce competitive struggle for economic existence and, unless something is done, to war and social chaos. But the moment the transition is effected the whole face of things is transformed, the whole structure of things is re-patterned. 

Certain entities disappear, others come into existence. Eternal laws vanish. Values change. Human nature itself changes. There is no human institution that is the same afterwards. In particular the weight of various factors is altered. What had been feeble and unable to grow in the old order is released and stimulated and becomes a dominant force. As an example consider adult education for workers. Under capitalism this remains puny and in­ effective nor is it possible to get it beyond a certain point no matter what efforts are made. But in a workers' state, where workers rule and industry is self-governing, an immense impetus to education is received, and a remarkable release of latent forces occurs.

Note the importance and fruitfulness of this conception, how many knots it unties and controversies it clears up. Endless confusion results from persistently refusing to admit the change of properties which a new pattern brings with it, to admit the disappearance of old laws and the emergence of new ones consequent upon such re-patterning.

Our example has been a social one. It might just -as well have been biological. It is a similar process wherever you find it. The properties of matter in all its forms are relative. Changes in matter are always arising out of the situation caused by the self-development of a given situation. 

Such changes always lead to new properties and laws emerging and a new relation between object and environment. Dialec­tical materialism analyses the laws of evolutionary change and applies them to society as well as to nature.

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